The two-mile stretch of Muni trackway between West Portal and Castro stations has been the site of two derailments and also plagued by slow speeds for more than two years — and the question why remains unanswered.
The Twin Peaks Tunnel was the site of a Nov. 17 derailment that remains under investigation. Directors for the transit agency continue to question why the trains traveling through the 2.27-mile stretch of trackway continue to operate at a top speed 15 miles per hour slower than former top speed of 50 mph.
The woes of the trackway — which carries the L-Taraval, M-Ocean View, and conjoined K-Ingleside and T-Third Street light-rail lines, and has 91,259 daily boardings — date back to Aug. 2, 2006. The derailment of an outbound, two-car L-Taraval train just west of Castro station on that date was later attributed to a flaw in the tracks.
The derailment also slowed down the speed of trains traveling through the tunnel, and despite a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the wiring and tracks through the area, trains have continued to travel slower than they did in 2006. Before the 2006 derailment, Muni light-rail vehicles averaged a top speed of 50 mph in the tunnel, according to the agency. During the last three years, the speed has been reduced to 35 mph — and when trains round a corner, that speed dips to 20 mph.
The lowered speed persists despite a major overhaul of the electrical wiring and trackway in the tunnel that was supposed to increase the speed of the trains.
Muni began the replacement of the subway’s overhead wires — which provide electricity for light-rail trains to operate — in January 2006.
During the fall of 2007, when the project with the wiring was still under way, the agency determined that “due to age and deferred maintenance the track bed in the Twin Peaks Tunnel is in need of maintenance,” a Muni statement from Dec. 27, 2007, said. The same press release from the agency said the speed in the tunnel would increase after the overhaul.
“With the improved track bed and new overhead wire system in place, Muni Metro lines that use the tunnel will operate through it at higher speeds, offering more reliable service and a smoother ride,” the statement said.
The entire project was finished in March 2008, at a cost that was estimated by Muni to be $8.5 million.
While still operating at the slower speeds on the new track bed, a second derailment of an outbound, two-car L-Taraval occurred at nearly the same location as the 2006 incident.
The second car of the 40-ton light-rail train came off the tracks at 7:35 a.m. Nov. 17, shutting down the tunnel for nearly 12 hours.
The cause of that derailment is still under investigation.
Nancy Anne Swanson, 60, who has been riding Muni since she was a teenager and has grown accustomed to delays and maintenance problems, said the derailment was unsettling.
“Every time I go under the tunnel, I get nervous,” Swanson said Sunday as she waited for a train at the West Portal station. “It scares me to think I could have been on that train. If it had been any other day, I probably would have been.”
As for the issue of the speed in the tunnel, Muni Executive Director Nathaniel Ford said his department has hired two independent firms to examine the speed situation in Twin Peaks Tunnel. A detailed analysis of the issue is scheduled to be presented in January to the Policy and Governance Committee.
“This tunnel provides the fastest and most convenient connection between West Portal and the eastern half of San Francisco for tens of thousands of people each day,” agency spokesman Judson True said. “We will continue to take all necessary steps to ensure its safe operation.”
No cars allowed: Muni tunnels exclusively for transit vehicles
While the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority works on determining an appropriate speed for vehicles allowed in the tunnel, it is also in the midst of implementing a plan to keep unwanted vehicles out of the passage.
In June 2008, an 87-year-old woman mistakenly drove her car into the West Portal entrance of the Muni tunnel, eventually making it all the way to the now-abandoned Eureka Portal on Market Street. While she escaped the incident unscathed, it marked the second time in a two-month span that a driver managed to pilot their car into the tunnel.
In April 2008, a San Francisco man drove his car into the tunnel during the early-morning hours, eventually getting stuck in a narrow passageway. He was subsequently arrested for drunken driving.
Since those incidents, Muni has stepped up its efforts to deter drivers from entering the tunnel. It has added signage around the entrances and increased its public outreach campaign to remind drivers that Muni tunnels are only for Muni vehicles.
— Will Reisman