The SFMTA manages Muni service proactively from a medium-sized office in the One South Van Ness building. It is called the Line Management Center (LMC). I arranged for a tour of it through my seat on the CAC to gain a better understanding of short turns, headtimes, and tunnel management. Like many riders of MUNI, I live in the Sunset/Parkside area. Living out there, one who doesn’t quite know what the LMC does, it does seem like they’re really messing with our LRV service just to spite us. When we get shuffled off the train at 19th, the only explanation offered is “there’s a train behind us.” Communication regarding transit service is key in changing this perception.
The LMC is a 1,600 square foot control center. The office is divided roughly in half—the Light Rail and underground side and the surface vehicle side. The LMC has up-to-date information on all vehicles traveling in the system. They aim to start out the day sticking to a schedule, but as we all know, transit can deviate from that schedule. We learned mostly about the subway system, why short turns happen where they do, along what lines, etc.
The trains are managed by one employee with the lines separated across four LCD monitors. He has a printed schedule and some more reference materials on the desk in front of him. As he watches the vehicles cross the screen, he calls operators and tells them to turn around trains and answers calls from stations about other train timing issues. He keeps a running report of delays that gets sent to management every day. A hard AM commute only has about 4 hours to prepare for the PM commute. Any delay is usually resolved by 2.
The wall behind the desk has three large panels, the outer two camera feeds of the platforms and the center has the older-style subway display. (As seen: http://www.flickr.com/photos/phrenologist/3231361265/) Fun fact: that display feed is from an EarthLink land-line the LMC maintains. The system runs on OS2, but they’re planning on upgrading to Windows Server in the coming near-to-mid term. They’re also wishing to move to a larger office that would be able to accommodate more Line Management Operators.
The LRVs are especially susceptible to delay for a few reasons. If you think about the N-Judah’s route, it goes through very diverse changes along the route. There’s street boarding in the Outer Sunset, there’s the raised car-free area near 19th, medium commercial area, it goes through the only non-subway tunnel in the entire system, then it cuts along a park, across those horrible tracks at Church and Duboce, entering the subway and exiting it again past Embarcadero. Those are tremendously different environments. A delay at Sunset Ave has a ripple effect on the lines behind it. Muni runs on a headtime system: aim to have one N every 15 minutes. If the train is delayed for 5 minutes at Sunset, the next N gets sent out 5 minutes late, but on-time relative to the train before it. This is to prevent bunching in the regular course of the day. We’ve all seen herds of LRVs heading out to the beach 3 in a row over 4 minutes, but the next after those isn’t for 50 minutes.
Actively managing the LRVs is a delicate proposition. The only places they can really turn them around is out in the Avenues. They are not actively screwing with the residents of the Sunset. It totally feels like it does, I know, I know. Getting abandoned at West Portal sucks, I feel you. There are not any turn-around points along the K-line, but they exist at almost every stop along the recently-built T-line. At about 6 PM they have the best opportunity to manage the lines. If they do not carefully maintain a balance of trains carrying people out of the downtown corridor and to their homes, PM commutes would be disastrous. More on that in a sec.
But it’s not realistic to turn LRVs around in the tunnel. There are a few cross-over points, some of which are too narrow to pass through in current operating conditions. The Van Ness crossover is so narrow that vehicles can fit through it, but at a maximum speed of 4 mph. By the time the LRV is emptied of passengers, turned around, going the other direction, change the destination signs…. All the lines behind it are delayed as well.
The MUNI Metro runs on automatic mode in the subway on what is called a Moving Block System. The vehicle must maintain a minimum distance from the one in front of it. That’s why you get to know the inside of the tunnel at Van Ness so well— it’s where the N and the J intersect with the K/T, L and M. The LRVs are coming off manual mode from the street and merge into already-moving traffic in automatic mode. All the points where the line enters the underground are major delay points: West Portal, Church and Duboce, Van Ness, Embarcadero. If a train gets removed from auto mode for whatever reason, it goes back into it as it passes certain points in the tunnel.
Running a three-car train is not a realistic solution to easing transit woes. Though they have been spotted very rarely in the wild, they cannot run in San Francisco. The total vehicle length would be tremendously long. You could probably get out on the first door at 30th stand there and have the last door of the third car open in front of you when it reaches 32nd! That would create a dangerous situation 9th and Irving and Judah. The momentum of the vehicle would be so great that to come to a stop, it would have to brake for a tremendous distance.
The PM commute is a difficult endeavor. The N’s boarding patterns have been studied and tracked for years to develop a plan to run the line. At Carl and Cole in the mornings, there is an over 5 to 1 boarding ratio. The vehicle then empties out along Powell and Montgomery with a slight increase around the ballpark. When the N takes people home, it packs up along the financial district and has great exoduses at Church and Duboce, and Carl and Cole. What was a standing room only N at Powell now only has about 1/4 the passengers when it reaches the Inner-Mid Sunset area. If there were many empty trains carrying 3 people to the beach, the LRV has to go all the way to the beach and start again to reach the underground, all the way to the Embarcadero before it can take people outbound again. (Remember, our tunnel crossovers are not usable in real-world conditions.) If there is a train a few minutes behind, by inconveniencing relatively fewer passengers in the Sunset, getting that LRV back into the tunnel sooner will ease congestion in the tunnel, getting people out of the FiDi and home.
MUNI barely has enough trains to carry the passengers. There are about 130 working cars. At any given time, about 10 LRVs that are wrecked. There are more than 200 moving parts in the door/stair system. If a car hits the door, they have to go through and make sure all the little moving parts are fixed. Though the cosmetic damage may not be bad, there’s oftentimes deep structural damage.
The LRVs have complete check-ups at one-thousand, five-thousand and ten-thousand miles. They are supposed to have complete overhauls upon their midlife. This hasn’t happened. It takes about a year to repair one LRV because they must be sent back to Breda to repair. Because of the non-standard sizing, the orders we place for the fleet take forever and must be custom-made. Many other cities have standard-sized Light Rail Vehicles. One could theoretically borrow vehicles from neighboring cities that run the same gauge if there were some kind of emergency. Cities in the same region could combine orders to make larger orders, thus bringing the cost per vehicle down. We can’t just “buy more LRVs.” San Francisco also has the incredibly diverse terrain thing, most other transit systems are not as diverse.
This is only about 1/4 of what I learned on my LMC tour. Jim was so nice and knowledgable. You can tell he genuinely enjoys what he’s doing. He wants MUNI to be the system it can be, the kind of system San Francisco deserves. Everyone in the LMC works so hard to keep MUNI running, often with little-to-no positive recognition. How many days do you get to work with relatively little problem? MUNI has been running somewhat better lately, at least in my experience. I was at West Portal last night and the map displayed a 51 minute wait for the L. In less than 30 seconds, the wait time dropped to 20, and as we were walking to sit on the OB platform, we saw a rescue L going north, stopping in front of the library to board! I reported it to 311 to tell the LMC they are doing a great job managing transit with all the problems presented in San Francisco.
Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall during a complete MUNI meltdown?