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Can a $1.2 Billion Fleet of New Trains Finally Save Muni?

If all goes smoothly, the upgrades could turn light rail into a viable commuting option.


Progress, like public transit in San Francisco, moves slowly. And rarely in a straight line. And Jesus, does it break down a lot. But in the not-too-distant future, the city’s frustrated commuters will finally be served by a light-rail fleet designed to withstand the rigors of San Francisco’s punishing terrain. It’s been a long time coming, and it won’t be cheap: The Siemens railcars being built in Sacramento and scheduled to begin rolling into town in October 2016 cost the city a neat $1.2 billion.

Will they be worth it? Only time will tell. But they can’t be worse than the current stock. For decades, Muni patrons have been subjected to trams that not only malfunction with alarming frequency but also contribute to the breakdown of San Francisco’s transit infrastructure. And all the problems begin with faulty design. On the ’70s–era Boeing trains, the doors didn’t stand up to the pounding of angry patrons. The pneumatic stairs, soaked in human waste on a regular basis, malfunctioned constantly. The dead-man switch, intended to prevent incapacitated drivers from wrecking their train, could be hacked with a rubber band. The intake cooling valves were located beneath the cars, where they sucked up street filth and sand, causing overheating and epic wear on components.

Phased out in the ’90s, the Boeings were replaced by Italian-built Breda trains that are, in many ways, even worse. A Breda car weighs 79,580 pounds, more than a BART car—which is ironic for a “light-rail vehicle.” Too long, too wide, and too heavy, the Bredas thrash rails, damage pavement, rattle trackadjacent houses, and consume vast quantities of power to get moving and keep moving. Due to the bulk of the cars and their faulty couplers, it’s impossible to run long trains during peak transit hours. That shortcoming—along with the trains’ inability to stay in service—has wreaked havoc on morning and evening commutes for decades.

John Haley, director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, says that Muni took stock of the Breda cars—their astounding weight, their ill-placed intake valves, their bum couplers—and decided against a replay. “If we could turn the clock back,” he says, “what would we do differently? What lessons were learned in the Breda procurement?”

Haley eagerly points out that while the double doors on a Breda car are 456-pound behemoths with a weak constitution, the doors on the new Siemens trains will weigh a svelte 80 pounds and have only 20 moving parts. All told, the Siemens trains will be a couple of tons lighter,and their couplers, for a change, will work.

The new trains also promise to upend a dubious ethos that has held sway at Muni for decades—that the solution to poor design is more design. Take the Breda air-conditioning system: While earlier trains got by with one or two motorized fans per car and windows that opened, circulating cool air on a Breda train requires 28 fans and two three-phase compressors on every single car. The fans operate on irregular voltages, making them prohibitively expensive—which is unfortunate, because they fail often. When a fan seizes up, the surviving fans are forced by the thermostat to work that much harder, until they too seize.

The notion of one ill-designed component causing a domino-like series of failures that ends in system-wide paralysis sounds like chaos theory. But that’s what has long been happening both within individual trains and down the length of San Francisco’s public-transit lines. Happily, the new cars are reportedly free of the design quirks of yore. Siemens boasts that its trains will roll 59,000 miles between unscheduled breakdowns. Right now, Muni is thrilled to hit 5,000.

For us, this portends far fewer trips ruined by a disabled train. Perhaps even more important, Muni may, finally, manage to keep enough trains out of the maintenance shop and rolling through the city to meet demand. The era of breakdown-prone trains being swarmed by commuters—leading, inevitably, to more breakdowns and a downward spiral—may be on the wane. If so, the answer to the reoccurring San Francisco question “Do you know what happened on Muni today?” will, at last, be “Nothing.”

Read more New Rules of Design coverage here.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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