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SF Muni Moves Toward $89M Rider Notification System Upgrade

The current system used by the transit agency relies on floppy disks to operate and is so antiquated that managers can barely find spare parts or qualified technicians to keep it running, officials say.

SF Muni
(TNS) — Muni is on track to award an $89 million contract for a new, state-of-the-art system to inform riders when the next bus or train will arrive. At the same time, the downtown Muni Metro train routing system still runs on floppy disks and is so antiquated that managers can barely find spare parts or qualified technicians to keep it running.

“It’s like a bridge that is being held together by bubble gum and duct tape,” said San Francisco County Transportation Authority chairman and Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Muni spokeswoman Kristen Holland took a softer tone, likening the aged system to a vintage car.

“Just like a vintage car, as the system passes a certain age it gets increasingly difficult and costly to maintain,” Holland said. “Parts become scarce, and the number of people who have the expertise in maintaining the system dwindle over time.”

Installed in the 1990s, the automated system controls trains in the tunnel between the Embarcadero and West Portal stations. During peak weekday commutes, that’s about 30 trains an hour.

And to ride the vintage car analogy a little further, new operators who grew up driving the computer equivalent of an automatic must be taught how to pump a clutch.

In Muni’s case, the clutch controls a system that uses floppy disks. So operators have to learn complex, out-of-date computer techniques.

It’s not easy.

“Our current transportation controller graduation rate is 40% to 50%,” Holland said.

Another challenge? Obtaining spare parts.

The fear of being unable to find those parts has Muni constantly scouring suppliers and other transit systems for parts before they vanish all together. As insurance, Muni stocks up on spare parts and mines parts from transit agencies that are replacing their antiquated systems with newer equipment.

“This buys us time, but is a clear signal that we need to upgrade,” Holland said.

Peskin said he’s been aware of the system’s fragility since 2007, when he took a tour of the control center following the opening of T-Third Street light rail line, which started running more than a year late and more than $120 million over budget.

“It turned out that they were driving pickup trucks down to Los Angeles to pick up parts being stripped from L.A.’s transit lines,” Peskin said.

But Muni Director Jeffrey Tumlin says that while the system needs to be replaced, he isn’t ready to sound the alarm.

“The train control system isn’t a looming crisis,” Tumlin said. “Yes, it runs on DOS loaded from 5¼-inch floppy disks, but it’s still serviceable.

“That said, investing in a new train control system will bring big advantages to the system. I hope it to be one of the signature projects of my tenure,” he said.

The 2020 Muni Reliability Working Group recommended replacing the transit control system within five to seven years.

Money for a new control system has been folded into a larger $300 million project to modernize the entire light rail system.

“Replacement of the train control system is in our current capital plan, and we are on track to complete it on time, provided we secure additional capital funds to complete the work,” Tumlin said.

The Muni director is right to say the threat of a computer collapse is not imminent because Muni Metro is closed right now and will likely stay that way until the end of the year. A botched repair job on the overhead wires triggered a closure in August.

That brought the trains to a stop just days after they had started running again after being closed for five months during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, when Muni operations were reduced to core service.

Muni used the five-month break to repair overhead wires, only to have the system go down after two newly installed connectors, also known as splices, failed. It was later determined the new splices were faulty.

The agency has since placed an emergency order for 200 splices from a new vendor to replace at least 70, and possibly all 154, of the existing connectors. The repairs will likely take until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Muni is also on track to award a 16-year contract for a Next Generation Customer Information System to deliver state-of-the-art, real-time information to Muni riders about when the next bus or train will arrive.

The system will include larger, graphical signs at bus shelters and rail stations, solar-powered signs to expand sign coverage throughout the city, and a new multilingual, profile-based trip planning and mobile payment app.

Great information to have, but only if the trains are running. And that won’t happen if the floppy disks flop.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.