Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Sleepless Train: Muni Idles its Rail Vehicles All the Livelong Night 

Wednesday, Aug 21 2013

A Muni operator's job entails driving the vehicle from Point A to Point B — but it's still a decent thing to thank him or her when you disembark.

The Muni system's job entails not needlessly idling its buses for hours on end, which wastes fuel, wears down the machinery, and violates many laws. In June, however, we revealed that Muni was doing just that. Damning city audits had triggered front-page excoriations about idling buses all the way back in 1996, and internal critics had been slamming the practice since the Reagan administration. And yet the buses idled on, for decades.

Rather than fire up vehicles as needed, Muni's undermanned, overworked garagemen simply started them all at once. This has the downside of being incredibly wasteful, dirty, and illegal. But it made it easier to adhere to Muni's pullout schedule without hiring extra garagemen. So that's what they did.

The day after our article, however, Muni issued a directive stating that, this time, it would clean up its act.

It has.

Bay Area Air Quality Management District inspectors have subsequently visited diesel yards in the predawn hours, and found no wrongdoing. So, thank you, Muni. Thank you for doing your job.

The antidote to the wasteful, dirty, and illegal stuff, per Muni's June 20 memo, was to toss more management at the problem. These supervisors, claims the transit agency, will rein in the front-line workers who cut corners.

So far, so good. But this wasn't a scenario created by Muni's lowest-level employees running amok. Quite the opposite: Idling those buses was a longstanding top-down policy promulgated by generations of Muni higher-ups. Everyone affected by the June memo was well aware of the situation and had been for years, if not decades.

Idling buses is a problem, but it's also a symptom. It's an indicator of an agency in which old policies addressing the shortcomings of long-since-scrapped vehicle systems are still in use. These "solutions" rely on cheap and plentiful fuel and place expedience above quaint notions of environmentalism or even environmental regulations.

This problem persists. And you don't need a flashlight to find it.

It's 3 a.m. at the corner of Geneva and San Jose, and the entire place glows like a Christmas tree on fire.

Every last train or trolley car in both the Cameron Beach and Curtis Green yards, which straddle Balboa BART, is fully lit and loudly idling. The trains' air-conditioning systems are likely engaged, as compressors periodically emit loud, chainsaw-like bursts, scaring the hell out of anyone wandering by at this ungodly hour.

Take a hop, skip, and a jump down the interstate to the vast Muni Metro East facility on the eastern waterfront and you'll find scores of light-rail vehicles idling in the predawn hours. Again, every last train car is fully lit, humming, and buzzing. The yard glows like a landing beacon for otherworldly visitors.

But there's nothing otherworldly here. This is business as usual.

Muni spokesman Paul Rose says that the trains were all lit because they must be powered up in order for maintenance to take place. Fair enough: It's challenging to fix things in the dark. Yet, during lengthy periods of observation at all three yards, no maintenance was observed. What's more, it makes little sense to fire up every last train in order to fix however many are being worked on (and then fail to turn them off).

Rose responds that there simply isn't enough time to power down the trains between the last one arriving in the yard at perhaps 2 a.m. and pullout commencing two hours and change later.

Muni's spokesman is a decent, hard-working man and, God knows, we ask a lot of him. But his bosses have, once again, tasked him with delivering a dubious message. Muni's official excuse for idling its trains all night is, essentially, that every last vehicle must be kept running, constantly, in order to make pullout — even though pullout is an hours-long procedure.

That sounds familiar. It's the same reason Muni idled its diesel buses for hours — a practice it now admits was indefensible, if irresistible. The reason Muni burns oceans of fuel and scads of energy needlessly idling its vehicles is simple: There are no consequences for wastefulness and this is the easiest thing for it to do.

So that's what it does.

Muni's take on the axiom "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" would be to grease every last wheel in sight.

Down at the rail yards, the agency runs its vehicles ragged, in perpetuity, for the benefit of its most decrepit. Knowledgeable Muni sources say that a small percentage of the rail cars have batteries, air-conditioners, or other systems that don't cope well with being turned off and back on. So, in essence, Muni never turns any of them off.

This practice, your humble narrator is told, was developed in response to problems with the Boeing cars Muni first received back in 1977, as well as early bugs plaguing its current Breda cars in the 1990s. Major changes have occurred in the intervening years in both the world of Muni machinery and the world writ large — Jimmy Carter doesn't seem so goofy anymore for encouraging you to wear a sweater rather than crank up the heat — but Muni's approach is unaltered.

Wasteful and outmoded policies addressing situations that largely no longer exist would doom most businesses. But most businesses don't receive Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric power at a cut rate, as San Francisco municipal entities do. Muni's cunning plan of idling trains all night requires cheap electricity, just as its decades-long practice of idling diesel buses was a vestige of an era when you could buy gas with pocket change.

Fuel costs a fortune now — yet Muni's ingrained practices still led it to waste vast quantities of gasoline. So it's understandable that it has even less impetus to conserve municipally provided cheap electricity.

"A few years ago, we were doing a lighting retrofit in stations jointly operated by BART and Muni," says Tom Radulovich, the president of BART's board of directors. BART, which doesn't receive the city's cut-rate electricity, installed energy-efficient lighting. "But Muni didn't want to retrofit the lighting. They get the electricity so cheap, the retrofit wouldn't pay for itself."

There is a solution: If the city continued to provide Muni and other departments with electricity at a discounted rate — but allowed them to sell back surplus power at the dollar value San Francisco would reap by selling it to other municipalities — Radulovich notes there'd be an incentive for conservation.

But that's not happening.

Until then, someone who drops his keys in the vicinity of a Muni rail yard will have no problem finding them, even in the wee hours.

Until then, the department that encourages city residents to sacrifice a degree of convenience but conserve energy by taking public transit will continue to burn through energy — because that's what's most convenient.

Until then, San Franciscans waiting endlessly for a train will have to comfort themselves that one will always be running, somewhere.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"