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Civil Grand Jury Blasts SF Muni ‘Switchback’ Passenger Offloads

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A N Judah streetcar enters the San Francisco Muni Metro system at the Sunset Tunnel eastern portal next to Duboce Park. (Christopher Beland)

An N-Judah streetcar enters the San Francisco Muni Metro system at the tunnel by Duboce Park. (Christopher Beland)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A San Francisco civil grand jury called for an end to the use of switchbacks by San Francisco Municipal Railway light-rail vehicles and buses in a report released Thursday.

Switchbacks, a practice in which a lead vehicle on a route is turned around to avoid bunching at the end of the line, are “an insult to passengers and are an ineffective and time-consuming strategy that does not help Muni to maintain schedules,” the grand jury concluded in its report.

The panel, selected to investigate the city’s government, found that while Muni uses switchbacks on just .03 to .06 percent of its runs, that still represents as many as 31,000 riders per month who are inconvenienced by the practice.

The grand jury cited a 2011 San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee hearing on the issue in which “riders described their shock and dismay when they were unexpectedly required to disembark from a fully functional car.”

The report noted that Muni officials said switchbacks were a common practice with other transit agencies, but the grand jury found that only one other agency in the Bay Area, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, used them, while other major cities such as Paris, Boston and Seattle did not, except for emergencies.

The panel recommended eliminating switchbacks and instead addressing the underlying problems that cause bunching on the lines, such as adequately staffing the Muni control center that oversees the system and to add short runs in dense areas during peak commute hours.

Two top San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency officials released statements criticizing the grand jury’s report and defending the use of switchbacks.

Tom Nolan, chairman of the SFMTA board of directors, called the report “superficial at best,” while SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed SFMTA board of directors, called the report “superficial at best,” while SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said, “The notion that we should run every bus and every train to the end of every line on every run is not a good practice, let alone a best practice.”

Reiskin said, “The more important conversation to have is how do we improve Muni service overall. We are working aggressively to reduce the need for unscheduled switchbacks and further lessen their impact so we can minimize any inconvenience to our customers.”

The SFMTA also released its formal response document to the grand jury, saying the report had “an extreme institutional bias and is fraught with inflammatory language.”

The response said, “Switchbacks are a valid and necessary service management strategy given our operating environment. We have made significant progress in reducing switchbacks and improving customer information through verifying proper head signs, making announcements, and using social media.”

The civil grand jury’s entire report on Muni switchbacks is available at: www.sfsuperiorcourt.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Muni-Final-Report.pdf.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed)

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