Bay Area's Light Rail 'Meltdown' Raises Havoc

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What people here are calling the Muni Meltdown began Aug. 22, when the city's transit service put into operation a $70-million computerized relay system meant to revolutionize its light-rail train operations.

Instead, the system shuddered, staggered and then suddenly collapsed in what panicked politicians and outraged commuters are calling the worst breakdown of the city's public transit system in memory.

San Francisco's 100-year-old system--which includes cable cars, streetcars, trolleys, trains and buses--has never been perfect. In fact, it has long been the subject of complaints among riders who say rude drivers and late and overcrowded buses are all too common.

But never before has so much gone so wrong at the same time. And in a city where public transportation is the preferred mode of travel for many, Muni's failure has been considered a disaster.

"We have more boardings on public transport here, per capita, than does any other city in the country," said Michael Yaki, a county supervisor and head of the transportation committee.

The computerization was supposed to cut morning commute time by increasing the number of trains that could shoot through the tunnel under Market Street, the backbone of downtown, from 24 an hour to 48 an hour. It also was supposed to virtually eliminate the possibility of collisions on the tracks.

Instead, traffic through the tunnel slowed to a crawl. Two days after the new computer went into operation, one driver panicked and locked himself in his cab, backing up the network for more than an hour and forcing Muni administrators to call the police to coax him out. Other trains simply broke down, or their doors--now operated by computer--refused to open or shut.

Muni and city officials issued assurances that the problems would be quickly worked out. But the situation continued to deteriorate. Commuters began to lose patience.

And then, during the Aug. 28 morning commute, the wounded system essentially lay down and died.

More than half of the trains that haul at least 100,000 commuters in and out of downtown every workday stopped running. Commuters were stranded in tunnels and on platforms for up to an hour.

Computer glitches, driver errors, breakdowns and at least one derailment made Muni just about the only topic of conversation in the city that day.

Ugly confrontations erupted between drivers and riders. The mayor and county supervisors were inundated with complaints. "Muni Hell on Wheels," screamed the front page of that afternoon's San Francisco Examiner.

Frantic efforts by Muni technicians resurrected the system by the next day, putting more trains into service and switching to manual control of their movements. As the week wore on, the computer system seemed to function more smoothly. But delays and overcrowding are still widespread.

Both Mayor Willie Brown and Muni director Emilio Cruz say no quick fix is possible. At least one county supervisor has raised the possibility that the new computer system may simply have to be scrapped, although no one knows how the city would pay for another one.

Riders are furious.

"I'm thoroughly disgusted," said Noel Dedora, an investment manager who took his frustrations out on a Muni driver on the Embarcadero station's crowded platform during the Thursday evening rush hour.

"It's not my fault!" the visibly agitated driver shouted back when Dedora screamed at him about the delays.

A Muni rider since 1990, Dedora said he could never recall a worse time for public transit in the city.

"They should indeed fire all the people responsible for this," he said.

Every day, commuters switch on all-news radio stations early in the morning to calculate their chances of getting to work on time. Talk radio programs are filled with angry exchanges between city officials, Muni representatives and riders.

Columnists have been merciless, skewering the transit system's union and its administration. They have assailed Brown, never failing to remind readers that he promised, as a candidate, to fix Muni in 100 days. And they have pitied commuters, referring to them as "Muni moles" trapped on stalled trains in pitch-dark tunnels.

"We're all going to be held accountable, and rightfully so," said Yaki, the supervisor. "The heat is on."

If another collapse on the scale of the Aug. 28 disaster occurs, Yaki said, "I think that the public's trust in this system will be irrevocably broken and we'll have no choice but to start from scratch."

Failure Blamed on Many Factors

Yaki blames the system breakdown on a combination of factors. Chief among them, says the Brown appointee, are years of neglect by previous administrations that forced Muni to continue operating aging trains long past their useful life and kept it from modernizing operations.

But Yaki says the transit system also suffers from poor planning and poorly trained drivers who don't know how to deal with the new computer system.

Although the city is fining Alcatel Transport Automation of France and Canada, designer of the new computer system, $20,000 a day for the breakdowns, backups and delays, Yaki said it appears that Muni demanded a system that Alcatel warned would not work, one that would combine computerized operation with manual operation of trains.

Since the meltdown began, Alcatel representatives have insisted that their system is working fine, and that Muni is just failing to use it properly. Yaki said he'll hold transportation committee hearings this month on who is to blame and how to fix the problems.

Commuters who have no alternative are getting up earlier to get to work and getting home later. But some have switched to buses or to the regional BART subway that crosses the San Francisco Bay.

Others say they are hitching rides with friends, hailing taxis or driving their cars. That has produced a ripple effect across the city, clogging streets with lumbering, packed Muni buses, more cars and more taxis.

Brown, who normally rides in a chauffeured limousine, is now clambering aboard buses and trains and working sullen crowds at stations across the city, trying to demonstrate that he is taking a hands-on approach to the problem. On Thursday morning, he walked down Market Street to the Embarcadero station to prove that Muni was, in fact, faster than humans after a local newspaper said it was quicker to commute up Market on foot.

"San Francisco is a city that loves public transit," said political consultant Robert Barnes. "People use it to go to work every day, and it is a part of people's everyday routine. If Muni isn't working, it hurts people's lives and people get angry. And that hurts all politicians."

Barnes, who said Brown still has time to fix the problems before he faces reelection in November 1999, predicted that the mayor will weather the Muni storm.

"No one has emerged as a challenger. You can't beat someone with no one," Barnes said. But some of the five members of the 11-member board who are up for reelection this November may feel the wrath of voters, he said. Three are Brown appointees.

If anyone is feeling more heat than Brown at the moment, it's Muni director Cruz.

Formerly Brown's chief of staff, Cruz has been dressed down by the mayor and assailed by the city's media outlets. He has gotten credit from some, however, for bravely venturing onto the platforms day after day to hear firsthand the diatribes of commuters.

"I'm not demanding his resignation," said Andrew Sullivan, of Rescue Muni, a 300-member commuter advocacy group formed two years ago to lobby the city for transit improvements. "He and his staff have been remarkably polite to riders who have criticized them."

Rescue Muni says the system needs to be more professionally managed, and has urged the creation of an independent transportation board. Currently, Muni's head is appointed by, and reports to, the mayor.

Sullivan said the group's World Wide Web site, offering updates on Muni's problems and alternate routes for people abandoning the trains, has seen a sharp spike in visits since the crisis began.

"We're getting 1,000 hits a day and 10 e-mails a day and voice mail messages," he said. Sullivan hopes that if something good comes of the mess, it is that San Franciscans, whom he describes as "remarkably tolerant of bad public transportation," will finally demand that the city make the trains run on time.

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