When 16 people are injured because a Muni light-rail train rear-ends another stopped train at a red light in a 3 mph zone near the Giants’ ballpark, the public is entitled to quick answers about what caused such a seemingly preventable crash.
Four days after that Saturday afternoon pile-up, minimal information had emerged from the ongoing investigation. We do not know whether the still-unnamed operator who hit the halted train had any prior accidents during his four years at Muni.
Yet the investigators apparently had plenty of raw materials to work with. Results of both drivers’ standard post-accident drug and alcohol tests were coming from the laboratory, and meanwhile neither driver was allowed behind the wheel. Videotapes from onboard and platform cameras were available. Equipment on the two out-of-service trains as well as the traffic signal on King and Fourth streets were being studied for possible malfunctions. There was even a Muni field supervisor who witnessed the crash and presumably observed something useful.
On Tuesday, Municipal Transportation Agency President Nathaniel Ford went public with some welcome — if disturbing — clarification of what went wrong. According to the onboard mechanical recorder and the field supervisor’s statement, the T-Third train that ploughed into the stopped N-Judah train was supposedly going 17 mph.
The train allegedly did not slow down, despite what appears to be a properly working brake system and emergency brake. The traffic signals and tracks at the accident also looked to be functioning well. Muni investigators will be interviewing the T-Third driver today. Some of the questions undoubtedly concerned the onboard surveillance camera footage that allegedly showed the driver getting out of his cab after the accident with a cell phone in his hand.
Phone company records of the call timing should ultimately show whether the driver was talking on his phone while he operated the train — which is prohibited.
Muni management deserves thanks for letting San Francisco know what the facts appear to show so far. It is much better for the public to know why its transit system is experiencing problems and, more importantly, what will be done to prevent those problems from continuing. This week’s openness marks a welcome change from prior Muni administrations’ habit of stonewalling about accidents.