SFMTA Under Investigation for Multiple Muni Safety Violations

In response to The California Public Utilities Commission‘s allegation of Muni’s safety hazards, SFMTA spokesperson Nathaniel Ford had this to say: “We have a very safe system. We’ve had our challenges over the years…but we have a good track record. It could always be better, but more recently over the past few years we’ve been slowly but surely improving our safety record.”

While the SFMTA’s optimism plays on and on like a broken record, everyone has gotten sick of hearing the same old tune. Luckily, there’s some good news for those of us who have been waiting far too long for someone to change the song.

During 20 inspections conducted between July 2009 and January of this year, The CPUC discovered repeated safety violations that might potentially endanger Muni’s passengers. In their official press release, the CPUC said that they are particularly concerned with “the material condition of the light rail system, SFMTA’s failure to initiate or complete Corrective Action Plans to address known problems, late reporting or non-reporting of incidents, and failure to respond to CPUC inspection findings.”

As a result, the CPUC has voted to open penalty clauses, meaning an Administrative Law Judge will listen to the testimony regarding these safety violations and rule whether or not the SFMTA will incur a fine for their conduct.

The CPUC has listed 8 safety violations as strong evidence for why they have taken these punitive measures:
  • The track at Church and Duboce Streets has deteriorated and has numerous defects. The track was inspected on August 12, 2009, and re-inspected on October 20, 2009. CPUC staff have yet to receive any plan for correction.
  • Sunset Tunnel has numerous violations including that the Automatic Train Control System (ATCS) is not operating in the tunnel. The SFMTA is not following its own regulations regarding speed restrictions in a non-functioning ATCS area. The SFMTA responded to a CPUC staff inquiry stating that the ATCS never functioned in the tunnel; however, the SFMTA did not provide any documentation to verify the claim. The SFMTA has yet to provide a plan for restoration of the ATCS.
  • A June 3-4, 2010 inspection of the Church Portal noted numerous deficiencies including induction damaged loop cable supports, cable not properly supported, cables rubbing switch rods, junction box problems, and others. A follow-up inspection on January 7, 2011, noted the same deficiencies.
  • The ATCS functions poorly in the Market Street Tunnel and appears not to operate at the Embarcadero Station. The SFMTA continues to delay replacing the induction loop cable. The situation may have contributed to an incident on October 1, 2010, in which one Light Rail Vehicle (LRV) hit another LRV at the Embarcadero Station. This accident caused major damage to both LRVs. Both train operators had minor injuries and were transported to a hospital.
  • SFMTA did not have a blue flag/blue light procedure in place until January 2011. This is a safety procedure required to prevent injury to personnel working underneath or around LRVs. Despite a May 12, 2010 SFMTA bulletin and a December 7, 2010 SFMTA memorandum requiring this procedure, on December 14, 2010, CPUC staff witnessed Muni employees working without a blue flag or blue light.
  • The last Triennial Audit of the SFMTA occurred in October 2008. Of the 49 Corrective Action Plans created by the SFMTA, 17 remain open. Several of these are significant and relate to the SFMTA’s track inspection program and the documentation of that program. In several recent meetings with CPUC staff, the SFMTA has not been able to provide a status report on the open Corrective Action Plans.
  • In the CPUC staff inspections of SFMTA from July 17, 2009 through January 2011, numerous material problems with SFMTA are documented. Of the 29 inspections, 26 required responses and Corrective Action Plans, which have not yet been received. The inspection reports required a response within 30 days.
  • SFMTA must submit final accident investigation reports within 60 calendar days of the accident. The SFMTA has eight accident investigation reports still outstanding for 2009 (some 13 months late) and 25 accident reports from 2010. Each of these late reports is a separate violation.

Despite these penalty threats, the SFMTA is optimistic and have expressed their confidence in being exonerated of all accusations.

And while it would be a great step forward to have the SFMTA take responsibility for their mistakes, if they are fined a large sum of money, they might make this another excuse for budget cuts and fare hikes, even if a large part of their financial woes is due to the ever-increasing pay checks the higher-ups receive. Even if the CPUC forces the SFMTA to assume responsibility for their sins in safety violations, it won’t guarantee that the SFMTA will also own up for their fiscal incompetence.

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