Coach 7054's disturbing history could have been revealed before a deadly accident — Muni's system allows mechanics confronted with a problematic vehicle to access the record and determine if they're the 15th person doing the same job for the 15th time, simply applying Band-Aid fixes to failure-prone vehicles. "But we never do that," says electrical mechanic Guzman. "There's no requirement to," adds diesel mechanic Cheney. "And if the computers are down, we can't."

Mechanics who emulate MacGyver in addressing fixes via duct tape may not be inclined to channel Dr. House in diagnosing puzzling and time-consuming mechanical mysteries. In fact, intermittent problems that induce drivers to pull a bus out of service often clear up by the time the vehicle reaches the garage, leaving overworked mechanics to shrug them off and push them back into service. Guzman notes that drivers regularly complain their "interlock" is malfunctioning; this is the system that automatically applies the brakes while a bus's doors are open. This happened twice with Coach 7054 in the month before its accident.

By the time a bus rolls into the garage, however, the interlock may be working just fine. It's only if the mechanic opts to descend into the pit and work under the bus that he can determine if a purported interlock failure is actually a symptom of the larger and more serious problem of "brake fading." This requires a serious investment of time. Time is money and at Muni, there's never enough of either.

The plastic has been atop Coach No. 5427 since early 2011; below, a properly maintained bus.
Joe Eskenazi (top), Christopher MacKechnie / publictransport.about.com (bottom).
The plastic has been atop Coach No. 5427 since early 2011; below, a properly maintained bus.
Internal Muni documents reveal that when drivers complain about bumpy rides from lumpy or bald tires like this, the tires are placed on the rear axles, where drivers cannot feel them.
Courtesy of Dorian Maxwell
Internal Muni documents reveal that when drivers complain about bumpy rides from lumpy or bald tires like this, the tires are placed on the rear axles, where drivers cannot feel them.

At 4 a.m. every day, e-mails ricochet around Muni management's inboxes about fleet availability at the agency's various yards. Along with on-time data, "availability" is one of the statistics Muni fetishizes as a tangible way to measure performance. The Bay Citizen recently revealed that Muni's internal metric rounded down late bus or train arrivals of as long as four minutes, 59 seconds, to simply four minutes late — which the agency considers "on time." This boosted on-time performance by perhaps 13 percent.

There are more straightforward ways to boost availability.

"People are getting phone calls at 3:30 in the morning asking, 'Are you making the runs?' Lowly frontline supervisors are holding management by the nards in choosing what stuff to let out or hold back," says one longtime maintenance supervisor. "Nobody is going to chew your behind out if you send out stuff that's on the hold board" — the list of vehicles deemed not roadworthy. Guzman recalls one such supervisor issuing the "defer maintenance" order so often when yanking buses off the hold list and pressing them into service that it became a catchphrase around the shop. This is how vehicles with cracked windows or busted defoggers or bumpers held on with bailing wire, or far more serious problems, are pushed onto the streets. Mechanics noted rags being tied around 800-pounds-per-square-inch hydraulic lines to (unsuccessfully) plug leaks or stripped wires in train couplers being held together with tape for want of a 50-cent part and 10 minutes to install it. Even if vehicles conk out within minutes of leaving the shop, "availability" quotas still have been met.

Drivers who raise a stink about the condition of the buses they're driving, like Dorian Maxwell, create a problem that quickly reverberates upward to Muni management. Operators, by law, are required to inspect the state of a bus or train before taking it out to serve the public. Declining a suspect vehicle is, arguably, a job requirement, but it's also seen by many within the world of Muni as a subversive act. "The culture here is, if you don't pull the bus out on time, you are doing something wrong," says a veteran driver. In February 2011, driver Chris Coghlan refused a bus, and wrote on a report to his superiors that "the 7000-series coaches are in such disrepair, it is difficult to find one free of safety defects.... It took me over an hour to get a suitable coach." One day later he was written up for rules violations twice, the first two he claims he ever received. "They put you on a list," Coghlan tells SF Weekly with a wan smile. "They put Dorian on a list, too." Maxwell's firing in late 2011 did not go unnoticed by his fellow drivers. Muni declined to discuss specifics on an individual termination, but Maxwell claims he was accused of falsifying a time card. He denies this, and alleges he was targeted for his years of agitation on health and safety matters.

There are, however, carrots to go along with the sticks. "If the operators chose to, they could bring back nearly every vehicle and shoot pool until management provided a working one," says a veteran maintenance supervisor. "That's why management tends to coddle the drivers. Not because of union power. Because they choose to take out garbage every day — the computers don't work, the wipers don't work, the automatic braking systems don't work."

The bus Coghlan objected to is one of the 20-year-old relics Haley would rather see in Russia than on Russian Hill. One of these, Coach 7054, struck Scott Whitsitt. At SF Weekly's request, Guzman reviewed that report, which lists the vehicle's numerous defects in the days leading up the lethal collision. "This history was pulled up just because this bus got in an accident," the mechanic says. Then he shakes his head. "But every bus will have this kind of history. Every bus in the barn."


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18 comments
jjlasne
jjlasne

If less money was wasted on excessive labor costs (remember that MUNI raises are inscribed in the city charter) and more on rolling stock and maintenance, MUNI would be a world-class transit operation. But it ain' t. It is a shame.

Notta
Notta

It's all a question of honor & integrity, from the top to the bottom. The integrity of the government, federal, state, local, & the vast majority of their departments & agencies, is seriously deficient, graft, bribery & corruption are everywhere. There is no real pride in a job well done, only in how big a pile of cash one manages to accumulate, in what ever way they can. It's pretty sickening that despite the efforts of many honest & honorable folks, the bad apples spoil things for everyone!

jerdking12346
jerdking12346

when you add in that muni moves 700,000 passengers a day ,  thats one huge job they accomplish everyday.

angrytaxguy
angrytaxguy

For John Haley, the #2 puppet aka (Director of transit -since Debra Johnson left for L.A.) to actually admit that the M.T.A. / (CITY) has underfunded transit is admission of guilt(impunity) - service ineffeciencies, dangerous equipment "allowed" to operate in service, violations of title 13, impossible on-time service, endangerment of the riding public & certainly the safety of the operator !!!!  Before anyone can blame the mechanics or the driver focus on those who are responsible for fully funding

transit which undermines....

Nick Aster
Nick Aster

Is it ironic if I actually applaud the creativity it takes to rig a bus to run with garbage bags? Frankly I think it's great as long as no one was ever in danger. The lesson here is - how efficiently is Muni using it's huge budget? I don't think "more money" is necessarily the answer...

A Reader
A Reader

This is no longer a transportation issue. This is a city governance issue. Where have the last few mayors been on this? Who in government is demanding performance from MUNI? We should shut the whole agency down, fire everyone, and hire Google's shuttle service team to just start again from scratch.

Sebraleaves
Sebraleaves

One of the best opening intros for a non-fiction story. A great piece of investigative journalism. Thanks for digging it up. Now the Muni is open game for media bashing. I have a question for the Mayor. Which is more important, a safe Muni today, or an expanded Muni tomorrow? And who should make that decision? The Muni riders or the city officials?

Edrobbedmuni
Edrobbedmuni

Spit and bailing wire and bubble gum use to run muni, Tom Nolan the chairman of the MTA who's Newsom appointee need to resign. Its time to clean house at the MTA. The riding public needs to address Mayor Ed Lee and demand answers. Repeal Prop E, Recall Ed Lee and Repeal Prop G.They didn't fix Muni. Death to the Central Subway. Collect the Transit Impact Delevlopment Fee from the Mission Bay Business. The Public's life is in danger while riding Muni. Boycott Muni on July 16,2012. Fire all the Managment staff. Free Muni for all!! if i riding a death trap why should i pay for my own murder.

Newsomfuckedmuni
Newsomfuckedmuni

Remember Prop E? It was supposed to fix Muni. Has it? All we have to show for it is less service, higher fares, and an MTA staffed by political appointees that we can't vote for or against. REPEAL PROP E NOW!!!

Tomlucas277
Tomlucas277

Willie Brown's Puppet now Lt. Gov. Newsom robbed Muni Now he's Fukin California. Jail Ed Lee and the Willie Brown's political machine NOW!!! Jail Nate Ford for committing a sexual act against the Muni riders. He Fucked them royally exiting muni with a 380,000 blow job. HELL TO THE THIEF. Service cuts and fare increases and now the MTA is Robbing the preachers collection plate.With parking meters in front of churches. Whats next this Money taking aminal is going to charge you for every breath you take. Repeal PROP E NOW!!!!

Ehmn2001
Ehmn2001

You're seriously bringing up Japan Rail as an example of good privatization?!? Ha! They're so up in their eye-balls in debt, they've been bailed out numerous times by the Japanese government. Based on that alone, is why you'll never see too much privatization of public transit. Public Transit systems based off this article alone show that they're never profitable and very risky.

Peter Jones
Peter Jones

As bad as you paint things at MUNI, it's even worse in the private sector. For years, due to Mitt Romney style 'Parasite Capitalism' (as SF Weekly pointed out in a previous article), maintence was routinely 'deferred'. But since 2008 maintenence of infratsructure in the private sector has been pretty much deleted from the budget. I can provide 1st hand accounts that will raise hair and pop eyes. Not the least the year I spent in the building materials department of a big box retail establsihment on Bayshore Boulevard here in The City.

Union_Yes
Union_Yes

An independent agency should AUDIT the Muni Staff's productivity. If the mechanics on hand did their job, instead of planning their next lunch break, or deferring work, MUNI would improve 5 fold.

angrytaxguy
angrytaxguy

its always been political-the difference is political compassion...local 250a negotiated a no strike clause in favor of labor peace but now you have illegal prop g orchestrated by evil Elsbernd aka no political compassion

angrytaxguy
angrytaxguy

Amen-except the Willie part-at least City Jobs were provided back in 1998

 
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