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Muni 'Switchbacks' Slammed In Grand Jury Report

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Flickr: torbakhopper
Flickr: torbakhopper

In a scathing report entitled Dumped In The Rain After Dark, a San Francisco civil grand jury slammed Muni's use of "switchbacks," calling the practice "antithetical to the goals set for the system...[and] a sign of systematic failure"

A switchback is a move used by Muni when a number of its light rail vehicles get bunched up on a single line. According to Muni managers, these packs of buses slow down service for the entire route because, outside this tight group of trains, the rest of line will experience a shortage of vehicles and extended waits for passengers. To prevent this from happening for extended periods of time, whenever Muni realizes a logjam has formed, the lead train in the cluster stops, turns around and starts traveling in the opposite direction.

For any of the up to 31,000 riders per month unlucky enough to be on the lead vehicles forced to reverse course, the only option is to disembark and wait for the next train to arrive.

"Muni management describes problems such as inadequate rolling stock, scheduling snafus, poor utilization of staff, and lack of effective technology as creating the need for switchbacks," reads the report. "Management also claimed that use of switchbacks improves overall system performance and that it is a standard practice among metropolitan transit systems in the United States and Europe. Neither of these claims is supported by facts or evidence. On the contrary, Muni could provide no statistical support for performance improvement as a result of switchbacks, and San Francisco is in the distinct minority in using this practice to reduce delays."

The report found that of all the other transit systems surveyed, only one used switchbacks with any regularity--the others regarded the practice as being "disrespectful to riders."

It also scolded for Muni for needing to utilize switchbacks in the first place when the system has more than enough technology and communications equipment to prevent these bunch-ups from happening; however, that equipment largely sits unused because the agency lacks the staff to adequately operate it.

"[When we told other transit agencies about San Francisco's prevalence of switchbacks] they were just kind of shocked," Grand Jury committee chair Sharon Gadberry told KQED. "And the other comment was that it didn't work to speed up the traffic because one-third of the time is taken from loading and unloading."

Muni officials defended their use of switchbacks, calling them an essential tool in dealing with the oft-clogged arteries of the city' public transportation system. John Haley, SFMTA's director of transit, explained to the San Francisco Examiner that, unlike transit systems in New York or Paris, San Francisco's light rails have to contend with surface automobile traffic and, as a result, are more liked to get backed up.

"I don't think anyone has walked down Market Street and got deja vu for Paris," remarked Haley.

Haley also noted the Grand Jury report neglected to mention that Muni had significantly decreased its number of switchbacks over the past year. There were only 82 switchbacks reported in July--down from a high of 440 last July.

SFMTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan had even harsher words for the report's authors. "The Civil Grand Jury report recommendations and findings reveal how tough it is to get a good understanding of the system," he said in a statement. "This lack of understanding has unfortunately resulted in a report that is superficial at best."

Citizen grand juries like this one are advisory only and their reports are solely recommendations and don't carry the force of law.

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