Every year, a random sample of Muni diesel buses must pass an inspection by the California Highway Patrol. In recent years, the agency always has made the grade. This is easier to do, however, when you alter the notion of a "random" sample. "There's always a way you can set things up to your advantage," says a longtime Muni manager with a laugh.

Preparing for a CHP inspection of 20 random buses, for example, you could ensure that your 20 best buses are the first out of the barn. That way, they'll be the first 20 back into the barn to be inspected. "When those coaches pull in, for the CHP guy, it's random. But you've already stacked the deck the night before," the manager continues. "That's how you'd do it. That's how I did it."

The California Public Utilities Commission, meanwhile, inspects Muni rails and rail vehicles. After blindsiding Muni last year by declaring San Francisco's rail system the state's worst, the CPUC and Muni entered into settlement talks. An agreement was recently announced: Muni will spend millions to improve its infrastructure — but, per the pact, need not admit to any wrongdoing nor that the improvements are a matter of "public safety."

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.

Yet no higher authority — no CHP, no CPUC, no amalgamation of letters and power — oversees Muni's fleet of 313 electrical buses. For vehicles like Coaches Nos. 5427 and 7054, the agency is left to self-police. For years, Muni's QA Department internally inspected all of the agency's vehicles. But, according to QA Supervisor Ken Sapp, his department abruptly ceased inspecting rail vehicles in 2010, and hasn't done so with an electric bus since April 2011. Following a slew of personnel transfers, the entirety of Sapp's department has been reduced to two diesel inspectors and Sapp. Asked the logic behind this move, Sapp replies, "I don't think there is any logic behind it."

Based on reports obtained by SF Weekly, Muni's QA inspections were harder to game than the CHP's. A July 2009 assessment of LRV No. 1437 found more than 20 defects; the vehicle was pulled out of service. A 2009 quarterly inspection of six LRVs, none of which had traveled more than three miles since undergoing its 10,000-mile preventive maintenance inspection, revealed 52 total defects. What's more, weekly PMs for the cars in the six months preceding the QA inspection were found to be overdue by 10 to 58 days. All six vehicles were placed on hold.

When asked who is inspecting rail vehicles and electric buses now, Sapp said this is being handled via standard preventive maintenance inspections. This means Muni is relying on the procedures its own inspectors revealed were delinquent by up to eight weeks — on vehicles that emphatically failed. What's more, the frequency of not getting necessary replacement parts during these preventive maintenance inspections led Muni's top transit official to coin the term "incomplete PMs."

Glaring QA reports on failed vehicles were a problem for Muni. The solution appears to have been to downsize that department and do away with such reports.

A number of Muni vehicles — particularly its Czech-made electric buses and notoriously underperforming Breda light-rail vehicles — were breakdown-prone right out of the box. They are growing older every day. The last midlife overhaul for Muni's buses may have been in the early 1980s, and San Francisco's extreme transit conditions induce even well-kept buses and trains to age in dog years. A dwindling number of maintenance personnel are left to cope with increasingly complex machines. Those mechanics are further hamstrung by an inefficient, Atari-era parts-procurement system to service obsolete vehicles produced by defunct companies.

Duct tape and plastic bags, by comparison, are easy to find.


For some, there is a silver lining in the hiring freezes and attrition that led an understaffed Muni maintenance department to grow even smaller. Overtime, particularly on the rail side, has skyrocketed. Between 2007 and 2011, Muni's electrical mechanics shrank in number by some 15 percent, but saw their overtime earnings double from $3.2 million to $6.4 million. "The culture changed — people said, 'This is good! We can earn more OT,'" recalls Guzman. "So they started crafting artificial overtime. We were told to delay the work in a regular shift and leave it for overtime." He claims procedures such as brake jobs, a four-hour operation, were routinely left until workers had already clocked their eight hours of regular time. In one instance, Guzman says his shift supervisor directly told him not to repair a broken bus pedal — a three-minute job — because "if we start fixing these little problems, they'll expect us to fix bigger problems." Some electrical mechanics have more than doubled their $77,500 salaries, with a few banking nearly $210,000; six dozen take home $120,000 or more. Among electrical mechanics, one-fifth of the workers earn 50 percent of the overtime.

Despite a prodigious upturn in overtime, Muni's vehicles continue to break down at a prodigious rate — especially when contrasted with the nation's other large transit agencies. "City Trolley" lines for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) fail every 7,645 miles — three-and-a-half times less frequently than Muni's best-performing rail vehicles. LRVs in Los Angeles require maintenance "roadcalls" every 17,926 miles — one-eighth Muni's breakdown numbers.

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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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