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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Muni Driverless Train: How Could This Happen?

Posted By on Wed, Nov 13, 2013 at 3:35 PM

  • Bryan Dempler
  • Gangway!

Update, 4:20 p.m.: Muni responds

It's always scary when train drivers and passengers exchange roles. And while a train driver is eminently qualified to be a passenger, you may not be qualified to drive a train.

An alert Muni passenger this morning managed to at least stop the train, however. An outbound K-T light-rail vehicle managed to leave Castro Station and chug toward Forest hill sans driver. A quick-thinking rider hit the emergency stop button.

Muni transit director John Haley assured the press that everyone was safe and sound, adding "the system worked the way it was designed" -- which isn't the most comforting quote to describe a situation involving a train full of terrified people and a mere passenger being called upon to halt the vehicle.

Veteran Muni sources we contacted, however, largely agreed with Haley. That said, this is hardly an example of things working well at Muni. This is a situation that should never have come to be.

See Also: Muni Train Takes Off Without Driver

Today's drama purportedly started after the train's operator stepped out to have a look at a problematic door and the vehicle took off without him.

A veteran operator told us that, yes, this could happen -- but not if the driver followed the A-1 Ironclad Rule of Being a Driver: Don't leave the vehicle without activating the parking/emergency brake.

"Only one thing could have happened," says the veteran operator. "He didn't have the emergency brake down."

Messages to Muni regarding whether or not the emergency brake was active when the train took off have not been returned. But, SF Weekly is told, the train would not have taken off if the red, half-circle shaped button known as "The Mushroom" had been pressed. Simple as that.

"Any time a driver gets out of his seat, the emergency button has to be engaged - especially when you're in automatic," says the operator.

Light-rail vehicles enter Muni's "Automatic Train Control System" (ATCS) when they roll into the tunnels at West Portal, Church and Duboce, or Embarcadero stations. While a train in manual mode requires the driver to twist the master control to keep it moving forward, no such failsafe exists in automatic mode. All the driver is responsible for is opening and closing the doors -- and, notably, engaging the emergency brake if need be.

"If you're in automatic," continues the operator, "as soon as those doors close, it will take off."

The train should not accelerate to great speed or, as an LRV did in 1998, head through multiple stations. A longtime Muni maintenance employee says trains in automatic mode will only travel one station at a time. If today's runaway train reached Forest Hill -- which it didn't, as passengers halted it -- it would have sat there until its doors were opened.

Minus a driver, that would have been quite a wait.

But, the maintenance source continued, it's not likely the train would ever have gotten as far as Forest Hill, regardless of what alert passengers did. Once under control of ATCS, the computer would have halted the train if it was approaching other trains, or slowed the runaway vehicle to a safe speed.

"The only thing that would have kept that train from moving," he sums up, "is the emergency controller."

Update, 4:20 p.m.:
Muni spokesman Paul Rose says "It does not appear the emergency brake was pushed." If that's the case, today's situation stemmed from the violation of one of Muni's most basic rules.

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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.


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