San Francisco Muni blasted for inaction over pervasive safety problems 

Muni has been negligent in responding to pervasive safety problems, and could face fines of $20,000 a day, according to a state regulator that Thursday opened an investigation of the transit agency.

But Muni says it’s being railroaded, claiming to have been blindsided by the charges. The transit leaders claim they have responded to every request made by California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency with oversight of rail and light-rail transit systems.

The CPUC alleges that Muni has dragged its feet on fixing persistent problems, such as the worn-down tracks at Church and Duboce streets, which handle the N-Judah and J-Church light-rail trains that carry thousands of commuters each day. The oversight agency also cited the lack of a functioning automatic train control system in the Sunset Tunnel. They also claimed Muni has failed to respond to 13 findings from a 2008 audit, or to dozens more inspection findings from 2009 and 2010. Muni is also accused of  failing to provide more than 30 accident reports from the previous two years.

These violations have resulted in “unsafe operations and endangering Muni’s passengers,” the CPUC alleged in the order authorizing the investigation.

But Muni Chief of Operations John Haley challenged the CPUC to prove that the transit agency had been negligent or failed to respond, and suggested that part of the problem is CPUC’s inspectors may not fully understand Muni’s complicated system.

“I say to them, show me the evidence ... I want to see the list,” he said. “Not only have we not been unresponsive, we have been hyper-responsive.”

He noted that the tracks at Church and Duboce streets are being partially repaired this weekend and that the agency has repeatedly explained to the CPUC that the lack of a train control system in the Sunset Tunnel is not necessary for safety. He said the agency has given the CPUC every response it has asked for, save for the accident reports, which cannot be sent to the CPUC because of legal constraints due to lawsuits.

The charges against Muni were revealed in a news conference that was ostensibly held to discuss the San Bruno natural-gas explosion. CPUC Safety Director Richard Clark unexpectedly announced that the commission had authorized penalty considerations against Muni. Penalties could cost as much as $20,000 a day per violation if the transit agency is found guilty.

A few hours later, Muni called a press briefing to respond to the allegations. Muni chief Nathaniel Ford said the agency had been in close communication and had no indication the regulators were unhappy with their progress, much less being on  the verge of being fined.

“[Fines] would be very, very detrimental to this agency and I think we would vigorously work to keep that from happening, and I think this press conference is part of that,” he said.  “It comes to us as a bit of a shock and surprise that this occurred today.”

Transit officials stopped just short of accusing the CPUC of using Muni in an attempt to bolster its tarnished image. The CPUC has recently come under attack for failing to properly regulate the PG&E gas pipelines, after one of those lines exploded in a residential neighborhood in San Bruno in September.

The CPUC’s Clark said it is disingenuous for Muni to claim to be blindsided by the actions.

“On January 28th, I informed Mr. Haley and the others that we were going to recommend an enforcement action to the Commission. They can therefore not credibly claim that they didn’t know we were going to elevate our concerns to the Commission,” Clark wrote in an e-mail.



Findings from the CPUC’s inspections of Muni operations include:

  • Track deterioration at Church and Duboce streets presents a serious public safety risk.
  • Automatic train control system — which helps protect against collisions and derailments — inoperative in Sunset Tunnel.
  • Automatic train control system functions poorly in the Market Street tunnel and may not regularly operate at the Embarcadero station. This may have contributed to an Oct. 10 incident in which one Muni train hit another.
  • Failure to respond to inspection reports or submit corrective action plans.
  • Failure to implement safety procedures to protect personnel working underneath or around light-rail vehicles.

Source: California Public Utilities Commission

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