The Belly of the Beast

George Musser describes Muni's operations center

The Enterprise bridge it isn't. Muni Central Control, located in a 40-by-40-foot room underneath a playground above the West Portal station, is filled with '70s-vintage computer terminals, black three-ring binders, and half-eaten yogurts. In fact, the word "control" is a misnomer. Controllers don't control much of anything; they simply relay communications and dispatch street supervisors to trouble spots. But at least it's an improvement over the pre-1980 control center: two people with one radio at the Presidio division.

Today's problem isn't the old technology per se, which is still serviceable. It's that the controllers have no idea where vehicles are, except for Metro trains. What little information they do have comes from drivers. Buses can bunch, drivers can fall behind, passengers can wait and fume - and the controllers may never know.

Better communications and crisis management - of the sort Metro manager Ken Rodriguez is introducing (see interview) - might help, although Muni may eventually need an Advanced Vehicle Location System, which would track vehicles using data from road sensors or Global Positioning System satellites.

Click on the thumbnails to see a full-size picture.

A radio-dispatch console. The control room has seven such consoles: two for diesel motor coaches, two for electric trolley coaches, one for streetcars, one for supervisory vehicles, and one for oversight of the whole operation. The console is just a fancy radio set. A console operator can type in a vehicle's code and the radio will attempt to establish contact; the console also displays the queue of incoming calls, with emergencies, if any, at the top. Using a separate computer installed four years ago, the operator can send alphanumeric pages to mechanics and managers.

The "mimic board." A panel along one wall shows the status of the trains and track switches in the Metro tunnel. The underground track is not continuous, but rather divided into sections separated by electrically insulated joints. Radio transmitters use each track section as a very-low-frequency (100 hertz) antenna to detect a train and send speed-control signals to its driver. On the mimic board, a red LED lights up if a train is within a section. The sections are 100 to 1,500 feet long; controllers do not know train locations any more precisely than this. Sections W47 and E47 are the West Portal station, E35A and W36 are the East Portal (the old Eureka Street station just outbound of Castro), W31 and E31 are Church Street station, and so on. Metro manager Ken Rodriguez is pointing to the bottleneck in the Metro system: segment E4, next to Embarcadero station.

Testing 1 2 2 1/2 2 3/4. Engineers are now testing the Advanced Train Control System - the way-over-budget, way-behind-schedule control system whose installation has closed the Metro at 10 p.m. Beginning Jan. 10, Muni plans to turn Metro operations over to the ATCS. Initially it will direct trains only in the Metro Turnback, an underground train yard just past the Embarcadero station. Managers hope the Turnback will eliminate the bottleneck in the current crossover track.

What's what. The mimic board only says where the trains are, not what the trains are. It can't tell a four-car M-M-L-K from a one-car J. For that information - crucial to the station signs and announcements - you have to go to a dusty computer terminal off on the side of the control room. Itsamber screen (at left) shows a one-car N train at Embarcadero station, one-car inbound trains at Powell and Civic Center, and a two-car M-L at West Portal. Signs in the other stations are regaling waiting passengers with irrelevant advertisements or announcements.

Entering the data: The line status information depends entirely on codes entered by drivers at West Portal and the Duboce portal (left). When signs or announcements are wrong, it's because a driver punched in the wrong code.

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