On December 11, SaveMuni members were treated to a tour of the County Transportation Authority’s control center at 1455 Market Street. The center is currently being upgraded to fully monitor and control the entire fleet of bus and streetcar vehicles. Eventually there will be redundant control facilities at Turk Street (OCC) and West Portal so that the system can be run from any of the three locations in an emergency. Recently a fire alarm required the evacuation of the TA facility; the OCC site was able to take over and manage everything on its own.
Muni Operations Manager Ron Forrest answered our questions in the “War Room” before showing us around the facility. Ron comes to us fresh from having run the Atlanta transit operation, which has some pretty incredible on-time statistics. The War Room is equipped with about a dozen cabled laptops and is is a gathering place for MTA and other city officials when there is an emergency or a civic event that threatens to stress the system.
There are many things in the works right now, but perhaps the most critical is upgrading the communications system so that multiple controllers can be talking to multiple drivers at a time. Incredibly, with the current system, only one controller may be speaking with a driver at a given time. The new radio system should be operational on all vehicles by April.
There are cameras on all vehicles and along heavily used (downtown) routes. Of course, Muni riders will tell you that the heavily used routes are not generally where they have problems. In-vehicle cameras do not currently provide live feeds to the controllers.
The most critical part of the system, of course, and the one that naturally has the most hangups, is the Central Subway, since there is almost no provision for trains to pass each other (the provision of such a capacity does not seem like it should have been rocket science…). A slow or disabled train disrupts the entire system, thus the tunnel needs constant monitoring and attention. Since trains in the tunnel run at high speeds, they are electronically controlled when in it – essentially driverless. A common problem occurs when the system does not register the train properly as it enters the tunnel, leaving the train to run only at street speeds (25 mph). The only way to correct the problem is turn the train around and have it exit by the opposite tube. Ed Mason informed us that the incoming cars are registered by counting the wheels; therefore entering at an excessive speed or slippage due to rain can easily cause the problem. There are fixes in the works to make the system work better.
SaveMuni has always maintained that tunnel speeds would be greatly improved if trains travelled in three or four car bundles instead of the current one or two. This would, of course, require coupling and uncoupling at the West Portal and Embarcadero stations. Supposedly the new trains are better able to accomplish this electronically, but it still does not appear to be a MUNI priority at the moment. Apparently, more “crossover” infrastructure is needed, as well as some new software.
Heretofore, performance monitoring has been a labor-intensive, on-the-street process, but with the new radios and GPS systems, it can mostly be done from the control center. Thus, Ron is moving people from performance monitoring to incident response. Ultimately there will be 65 controllers for both bus and rail, but currently they have less than half that. Muni is having a difficult time recruiting people because of the high cost of living and the 25 months it takes to train them. Training times are long even if candidates are coming from another transit system, because our system is “antiquated.”