Muni Metro Meltdown Analysis

This analysis of the disaster of Muni Metro rail operations was made by Rescue Muni member Richard Mlynarik in late September 1998, expanding on a "usenet" computer network discussion message (briefly cited here) which identified some problems contributing to the August Metro Meltdown.

Note also detailed comments from operators and riders on their experiences.

(Unlike Booz-Allen and Hamilton, who have have been paid over $30 million, and counting, in order to bring Metro operation to its knees, Richard provides this analysis free of charge.)

Reading between the lines, I have some guesses about what might be behind the current MUNI train control problem:
  1. Failure to define the requirements. [...]
  2. No organized test plan. [...]
  3. Design Malfunction. [...]
  4. Inadequate Training. [...]

While I agree with most of these points, there are three things missing from this finger-pointing:

Most fundamental is the question of why Muni was installing a multi-million dollar, newish-technology, moving-block signalling system in a small-scale, medium-traffic, medium-headway railway system in the first place.

The second is the basic engineering management failure to allow for failure and arrange for fallbacks: Muni not only unwisely undertook a whole slew of poorly-planned, capital-intensive, poorly-justified, poorly-procured and poorly-managed projects simultaneously, but made them all almost complete interdependent. The inevitable failure(s) of any element of the capital program lead to system-wide meltdown with no chance for graceful degradation to Plan B.

The third is the question of why an engineering fiasco continues to be inflicted upon the Muni customers and taxpayers and residents of San Francisco when decommissioning the system would increase the level of public transportation service in the city.

For the first part, the delivery of rail service in Muni's Market Street subway has been constrained by the following (in rough order):

  1. Unreliability of equipment:
  2. Lack of line supervision; any delay on any part of the rail system has been unmonitored and uncorrected, leading to huge service gaps which individual train operators are unable to unilaterally act to fill.
  3. Unreliability of operator staffing Muni hasn't been employing enough train operators to provide the timetabled service, nor rigorously ensuring that those on the payroll work when customer demand demands it.
  4. Traffic congestion at the terminal station. Trains on circa two-minute headways converging and terminating at a single pair of terminal platforms and reversing back via a single scissors crossover (see this news posting for a longer description) can lead to contention for paths across the cross-over and backups for incoming trains.
  5. Counter-productive work rules. Until recently it was the case that a two-car train required two operators, one of whom spent half his or her time with no responsibilities other than fare collection. It is still the case that reassignment of a vehicle and its operator from its scheduled run to any other service (i.e. reallocating service to where they are most needed because of delays or loadings) requires a small premium to be paid to the operator.

Note that, due to an inability to provide trains to provide service, line capacity in the Market Street subway has never been an issue, and will not be an issue for many years, if ever. The new signalling system, advertised as expanding the line capacity of the Market Street subway by reducing headways between trains, is simply unnecessary.

Note also that line capacity measured in trains per hour is a quite different matter from what most effects customers of the system, which is reliable headways on each of the lines combined with adequate passenger capacity measured in vehicles per hour.

The moving-block signalling system and automatic train control is not only overkill for a small-scale operation with few trains on undemanding headways, but it completely fails to address the real problems.

Now to the second matter, that of the unnecessary inter-connectedness of capital projects.

Muni has recently spent over $700 million on capital projects of extraordinarily dubious efficacy.

The overall third question is: "Why is this fiasco is being inflicted on San Francisco?"

Inception of the ATCS system was an unmitigated disaster. Despite over three years of evening and weekend closures of the subway to revenue service, borne by Muni's riders through unreliable and inadequate "replacement" bus shuttle service, the ATCS system completely failed. Trains were delayed for hours. Weeks later [now months later], the problems are not fully resolved.

Rather than reconsider whether operation of this expensive boondoggle -- which solves no pressing or even medium-term problem of the system -- should be suspended, Muni's management, out of some combination of political directive and professional embarrassment, has persisted in operation of the system. Unfortunately, this has happened to the direct cost of the customers of the Muni system.

So, the result is: Muni planning started a large number of expensive projects. The cost-effectiveness and indeed the usefulness at any price, of a number of those projects is extraordinarily poor.

Muni planning designed those projects so that they success of any one of them depends on most of the others.

There were no contingency plans for what to do if any component failed; say, late Breda delivery or non-functioning ATCS. Individual failures are seldom predictable in any engineering undertaking, but the possibility must always be allowed for. Failure to do so was an engineering management and agency management disaster of the first rank, and no amount of finger-pointing at other agencies or at contractors or at past administrations can obscure this fact.

The result of this lack of fallback is a $700 million "investment" which has to be "made" to "work" because it has become a matter of all or nothing.

The result of that is that service on the street to actual tax-paying, fare-paying, San Francisco residents, workers and visitors has gone to hell so boasts can be made about increasing the number of "trains per hour" and photos can be taken at ceremonies inaugurating service on new rail lines.

Another result is that the appalling state of the much larger and much more patronized remainder of the Muni system -- the diesel and electric buses lines -- has been been further swept under the carpet.

Muni Metro rail service -- even in its present disastrous and reduced state -- is in many ways superior to that on many bus lines, and is certainly receiving a disproportionate amount of attention, and will continue to receive a disproportionate amount of investment.

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Updated 12/29/98.