SFMTA hearing to address near-term service response before new light-rail cars arrive 

click to enlarge The current fleet of Muni trains is not expected to be replaced until 2021, which leaves riders with nearly seven years of service with the current aged vehicles. - JESSICA CHRISTIAN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Jessica christian/S.f. examiner file photo
  • The current fleet of Muni trains is not expected to be replaced until 2021, which leaves riders with nearly seven years of service with the current aged vehicles.

San Francisco officials have celebrated the contract approval for top-of-the-line light-rail vehicles to improve a dismal Muni service, but before the first new cars show up, riders will have years of waiting to do.

That's why Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has made Muni and transportation infrastructure one of his top political causes, has called for a hearing to learn what the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency plans to do in the meantime.

"We need to know what the current situation is, what the plan is to get us out of this current situation, and how Muni sees the next three, four, five years going," Wiener said last week. He said the agency's response should not be: "Riders don't worry, at some point in the future it's going to be all fixed."

The plan for the future to address service concerns is to buy new light-rail vehicles from Siemens Inc. The $1.2 billion contract, which includes the option to purchase up to 85 cars, was recently approved by the Board of Supervisors and celebrated by Mayor Ed Lee. Without the option, the contract is $648 million for 175 cars.

"By expanding San Francisco's light rail fleet, these new Siemens vehicles will make our City's public transportation system more reliable, easier to maintain, and ready to meet the demands of a growing City," the mayor said in a statement earlier this month.

But while the first 24 cars under the contract are expected to arrive in 2017, they will be used for the Central Subway line, the under-construction, $1.6 billion project creating a 1.7-mile route from Chinatown to where the T-Third Street line ends near AT&T Park.

The 151 light-rail vehicles used in the existing system won't start getting replaced by new Siemens cars until 2021.

"We have a gap," Wiener said. "Right now, our light-rail vehicles are the primary source of lack of reliability in the system. We don't have enough to begin with and they break down frequently. Riders see the consequences every day when there are big gaps in service, when there are vehicles that you can't even squeeze onto."

The existing light-rail vehicles experience disrepair daily, costing the agency $33.9 million annually in maintenance and repairs, according to a report by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose. On average, 114 of the vehicles are in service while the other 37 are in the shop.

On Friday, Muni spokesman Paul Rose provided some insight into the transit agency's short-term strategy for improving service.

"We look forward to working with Supervisor Wiener to help share information about the work we are doing to improve Muni," Rose said. "The procurement of up to 260 light-rail vehicles is the single most significant thing we can do to improve service and we will continue to try new things to ensure our existing equipment works to the best of its ability."

Those actions include: prioritizing the replacement of high-failure systems, increasing maintenance, improving the infrastructure to increase percentage of trains operating in automatic in the subway as they should, giving trains signal priority at important surface locations and adjusting schedules to increase service.

The vehicle contract comes as the transit agency estimates that with both the Central Subway and city population growth, by 2040, ridership could nearly double during peak travel times. The vehicles currently carry about 173,500 riders daily.

The agency's 2014 Transit Fleet Management Plan, adopted by the SFMTA board of directors in March, says that to meet the demand over the next 25 years, the 151 light-rail vehicles need replacing and the fleet needs to increase to 260.

Wiener's hearing is expected to take place in November.

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