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Gordon Mar joins chorus of frustration over Muni ‘switchbacks’

Following the in the footsteps of former District 4 supervisors Carmen Chu and Katy Tang, Supervisor Gordon Mar is calling for a hearing on the dreaded and frustrating Muni train switchbacks.

Mar requested the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to report to the board about why and how often the transit agency uses switchbacks and how they can reduce them.

Mar said last Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting:

“Our office has heard from constituents every single day who have had their commutes and lives interrupted and delayed by switchbacks. They deserve answers.”

Switchbacks can often leave riders waiting for another train late at night in the cold or in the case of this week, in the rain, with some passengers often opting to walk home.

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about the switchbacks from Sunset Muni commuters as both the L-Taraval and N-Judah serve parts of Mar’s district. Both Chu and Tang had previously held multiple hearings about Muni switchbacks due to constituent complaints.

Muni switchbacks was also a topic that The City’s civil grand jury looked into in 2012.

A switchback happens when an operator is told to turn a train around before continuing to its terminal. A train operator, for example, may be told to switchback a train toward downtown at Sunset and Judah, rather than heading to the end of line.

Switchbacks are a method to help transit officials “rebalance” service either from mechanical delays, special events, or infrastructure delays inside the subway, said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose.

Transit officials also use switchbacks to make headway adjustments for light rail lines, said Rose.

For month of December last year, the SFMTA reported 1,736 switchbacks due to infrastructure and mechanical issues with trains. That figure is far from the 377 switchbacks reported for January in 2017, and more still than the 1,155 switchbacks in November 2018.

The K-Ingleside/T-Third line tallied the most switchbacks at 511 last December, followed by the by N-Judah with 431 switchbacks.

On the other rail lines, transit management ordered 258 switchbacks on the L-Taraval, 226 on the M-Ocean View and 306 switchbacks on the J-Church last December.

Rose said the SFMTA tries to avoid switchbacks during morning and evening peak commute hours. Still, nearly four of every 10 of switchbacks occurred during peak hours during December and January combined.

The transit agency also said during previous hearings that operators would make announcements as soon as they are told to switchback and make sure signage is correct on trains.

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, a cosponsor of the hearing, is also fed up with the Muni switchbacks and has told media outlets that the SFMTA needs to be held accountable for the switchbacks that frequently occur on the T-Third in the Bayview.

Walton announced on his Facebook page on Jan. 9 the possible elimination of switchbacks (with exceptions to events and delays outside of SFMTA control) on the T-Third after the SFMTA completes the new island boarding platforms near Chase Arena with plans for more new Muni trains, including having trains on standby to help fill gaps in service.

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