Sleepless Train: Muni Idles its Rail Vehicles All the Livelong Night

A Muni operator's job entails driving the vehicle from Point A to Point B — but it's still a decent thing to thank him or her when you disembark.

The Muni system's job entails not needlessly idling its buses for hours on end, which wastes fuel, wears down the machinery, and violates many laws. In June, however, we revealed that Muni was doing just that. Damning city audits had triggered front-page excoriations about idling buses all the way back in 1996, and internal critics had been slamming the practice since the Reagan administration. And yet the buses idled on, for decades.

Rather than fire up vehicles as needed, Muni's undermanned, overworked garagemen simply started them all at once. This has the downside of being incredibly wasteful, dirty, and illegal. But it made it easier to adhere to Muni's pullout schedule without hiring extra garagemen. So that's what they did.

You can read your watch by the lit trains at the Muni Metro East Facility. It was getting on 3 a.m.
Mike Hendrickson
You can read your watch by the lit trains at the Muni Metro East Facility. It was getting on 3 a.m.
Rail vehicles idle deep into the night at the Curtis E. Green yard. The one dark train on the left is a Boeing light-rail vehicle, which likely hasn't seen service since 2001.
Mike Hendrickson
Rail vehicles idle deep into the night at the Curtis E. Green yard. The one dark train on the left is a Boeing light-rail vehicle, which likely hasn't seen service since 2001.

The day after our article, however, Muni issued a directive stating that, this time, it would clean up its act.

It has.

Bay Area Air Quality Management District inspectors have subsequently visited diesel yards in the predawn hours, and found no wrongdoing. So, thank you, Muni. Thank you for doing your job.

The antidote to the wasteful, dirty, and illegal stuff, per Muni's June 20 memo, was to toss more management at the problem. These supervisors, claims the transit agency, will rein in the front-line workers who cut corners.

So far, so good. But this wasn't a scenario created by Muni's lowest-level employees running amok. Quite the opposite: Idling those buses was a longstanding top-down policy promulgated by generations of Muni higher-ups. Everyone affected by the June memo was well aware of the situation and had been for years, if not decades.

Idling buses is a problem, but it's also a symptom. It's an indicator of an agency in which old policies addressing the shortcomings of long-since-scrapped vehicle systems are still in use. These "solutions" rely on cheap and plentiful fuel and place expedience above quaint notions of environmentalism or even environmental regulations.

This problem persists. And you don't need a flashlight to find it.

It's 3 a.m. at the corner of Geneva and San Jose, and the entire place glows like a Christmas tree on fire.

Every last train or trolley car in both the Cameron Beach and Curtis Green yards, which straddle Balboa BART, is fully lit and loudly idling. The trains' air-conditioning systems are likely engaged, as compressors periodically emit loud, chainsaw-like bursts, scaring the hell out of anyone wandering by at this ungodly hour.

Take a hop, skip, and a jump down the interstate to the vast Muni Metro East facility on the eastern waterfront and you'll find scores of light-rail vehicles idling in the predawn hours. Again, every last train car is fully lit, humming, and buzzing. The yard glows like a landing beacon for otherworldly visitors.

But there's nothing otherworldly here. This is business as usual.

Muni spokesman Paul Rose says that the trains were all lit because they must be powered up in order for maintenance to take place. Fair enough: It's challenging to fix things in the dark. Yet, during lengthy periods of observation at all three yards, no maintenance was observed. What's more, it makes little sense to fire up every last train in order to fix however many are being worked on (and then fail to turn them off).

Rose responds that there simply isn't enough time to power down the trains between the last one arriving in the yard at perhaps 2 a.m. and pullout commencing two hours and change later.

Muni's spokesman is a decent, hard-working man and, God knows, we ask a lot of him. But his bosses have, once again, tasked him with delivering a dubious message. Muni's official excuse for idling its trains all night is, essentially, that every last vehicle must be kept running, constantly, in order to make pullout — even though pullout is an hours-long procedure.

That sounds familiar. It's the same reason Muni idled its diesel buses for hours — a practice it now admits was indefensible, if irresistible. The reason Muni burns oceans of fuel and scads of energy needlessly idling its vehicles is simple: There are no consequences for wastefulness and this is the easiest thing for it to do.

So that's what it does.

Muni's take on the axiom "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" would be to grease every last wheel in sight.

Down at the rail yards, the agency runs its vehicles ragged, in perpetuity, for the benefit of its most decrepit. Knowledgeable Muni sources say that a small percentage of the rail cars have batteries, air-conditioners, or other systems that don't cope well with being turned off and back on. So, in essence, Muni never turns any of them off.

This practice, your humble narrator is told, was developed in response to problems with the Boeing cars Muni first received back in 1977, as well as early bugs plaguing its current Breda cars in the 1990s. Major changes have occurred in the intervening years in both the world of Muni machinery and the world writ large — Jimmy Carter doesn't seem so goofy anymore for encouraging you to wear a sweater rather than crank up the heat — but Muni's approach is unaltered.

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Having engages the biggest corporations in the world, coming back to local politics is astounding.  The City and County of San Francisco should be operating like a smooth oiled machine.  This City, I must conclude is one of the most idiotic operations around.  There are smart problem solvers as citizens, but they are ignored for developer agendas.  

I say, appoint George Shultz as grand poohbah to put this city back in coordinated operation.  The culture today is that if a couple of bolts snap on tightening with the torque wrench to specs., just epoxy the bolt tops to the shaft and check the box.  George is too old to care for anything but his reputation.

Fortunately, that failure to report did not happen on the bridge, as far as we know.  But the coverup of system failure is going on everywhere.  San Francisco is for sale, and the vultures are not out for blood, but for the green.


Thank you for shining the light (so to speak) on Muni and encouraging more efficient and safer operations.  No public agency should squander both financial or environmental resources, especially when they advertise themselves as a clean air solution.  BART provides a great service, however it would be nice if they would find a way to operate their escalators on demand (ie. motion or weight activated) rather than non-stop c. 20 hours/day.   The hefty maintenance bills and periods where the escalators are out-of-service would be less.

aliasetc topcommenter

Take the electricity bill out of the pension fund. Bet that cures the problem. And always remember MUNI sucks!

aliasetc topcommenter

Take the electric bill out of the pension fund. Bet the electric usage drops instantly!

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