Muni given go-ahead for double berthing at downtown stations 

click to enlarge A single MUNI train stops at the very end of the Montgomery Station platform to pick up mid-day travelers. The SFMTA received state approval to allow multiple trains to enter the stations at once in order to better serve the public and relieve congestion at peak commute hours. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner
  • A single MUNI train stops at the very end of the Montgomery Station platform to pick up mid-day travelers. The SFMTA received state approval to allow multiple trains to enter the stations at once in order to better serve the public and relieve congestion at peak commute hours.
At Muni’s underground stations downtown, boarding platforms stretch 700 feet through the cavernous underground. But the way Muni works now, even if two 75-foot trains pull up to the station at the same time, only one can load and unload passengers.

The other train must wait.

But before Muni could berth two trains at a time, adjustments to the automatic control software needed to be made — and state approval was required to rewrite even a single line of code.

Now Muni has that approval, and the trains may soon be speedier or, at least, a lot less crowded.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency this week was given final approval to start double berthing, which will allow two trains to load and unload passengers at the same time in underground stations. The California Public Utilities Commission sent a letter to SFMTA Transportation Director Ed Reiskin announcing the state agency accepted a safety report on Muni’s new train car control system. The system is key to safely double berthing.

With the approval, the SFMTA will start doubling up trains as early as May.

“Right now, we’re taking steps to upgrade the automated train control software at seven different locations throughout the subway system so we can ensure a smooth launch,” said Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesman. Double berthing works simply enough: When two trains pull up, the back one allows passengers to disembark while the front one loads passengers.

The Civic Center, Powell Street and Montgomery Street stations are long enough to support two two-car trains, at 75 feet apiece. Other stations are too short to accommodate the practice. The J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Oceanview, N-Judah and T-Third Street lines will all be able to double berth. New signage will go up in stations indicating whether double boarding can happen.

The idea came from rider complaints, SFMTA Transit Director John Haley said in 2013.

The SFMTA showed off its double-berthing chops in a December demonstration for the CPUC. This was the final hill to climb before double berthing could start.

The CPUC then also evaluated the SFMTA’s automatic train control software, the Automatic Train Control System, to automatically guide trains to the boarding platform.

CPUC staff liked what it saw in the demonstration, Paul King, deputy director of the agency’s Office of Rail Safety, wrote in an approval letter to the SFMTA.

“Staff noted the system functioned safely and according to design,” King wrote. With that letter, the program was approved to move forward. Double berthing arrives on the heels of Muni’s biggest boost to transit in decades: Muni Forward, which will benefit up to 165,000 riders by putting more buses on the road. However, the initiative did not address the light-rail train system.

Last year, the SFMTA announced the purchase of 215 new light-rail vehicles that will start coming to the fleet in 2016. The new trains, agency officials said, are the only way to speed up service.

As welcome a change as double berthing is, a 2013 SFMTA report revealed it would result in zero minutes of travel-time savings. Still, passengers said, standing up while stuck on a train when you could easily off-board can be maddening. Double berthing should alleviate the problem.

“I’m 100 percent for it,” said Eddie Villaluna, a San Francisco native who regularly takes the L-Taraval from his Sunset home to work at the Westfield San Francisco Centre.

“When I’m trying to get to work on time, it can be tough” to wait to get off even though the train already arrived at the station, he said. Double berthing will especially smooth his trip, he added, as baseball season gets into full swing.

He’ll soon have to wade through Giants fans swarming boarding platforms as he catches his train ride home, Villaluna said. “That’ll be crazy,” he said.

But with double berthing, maybe the crowding will be less crazy than he thinks.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Bio:
Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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