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New Muni crash comes as agency defends safety record

SF Public Press
 — Mar 21 2011 - 4:22pm

UPDATE 3/25/11: San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a 30-day extension request with the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday and it was approved on Friday. Herrera said in the request that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, will need time to gather documents and data from several of the agency’s divisions to provide a thorough response to the commission’s allegations of safety violations on its light-rail system.

Administrative Law Judge Bruce DeBerry said no other extensions will be granted. A pre-hearing will be held at 10 a.m. on May 13 in the Commission’s courtroom at 505 Van Ness Ave.

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A Muni light-rail vehicle was struck by a big rig Monday morning, injuring six people, according to San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Lieutenant Mindy Talmadge, in an incident that highlights the rancorous debate happening right now at the state level concerning the city’s transport safety.

The California Public Utilities Commission is weighing a decision to penalize San Francisco's Metropolitan Transit Agency for alleged violations of key safety regulations on its light-rail system, including defective tracks and a malfunctioning automatic train control system.

A failure to communicate more regularly, and transparently, with the state was another charge leveled at the agency in a recent report issued by the commission, which oversees safety guidelines for all rail systems in the state.

There has been some response on the agency’s part. A week after the utilities commission released its report on Feb. 24, attacking Muni's safety standards, the city’s transit authority fired back with claims that the system was indeed safe.

“It was pretty surprising that this report came out,” said Reginald A. Mason, the transit system’s chief safety officer, speaking at a public hearing held March 4 at City Hall. Mason denied that Muni had been non-compliant in upholding its consultation agreements with the state commission.

“We meet with them on a bi-weekly basis. We go through the inspections and audits they perform on us, and if there is anything glaring, we'll bring it up” to the state commission, he said.

But the commission staff is reporting otherwise. According to state data released in February, Muni still hasn’t filed outstanding incident reports, some of which were due at least 13 months ago. More grievously, it has yet to correct alleged safety violations concerning its defective tracks and automated control system.

According to commission inspections that took place on Aug. 12, 2009 and Oct. 20, 2009, the tracks at Church and Duboce streets are deteriorated and dangerously worn out, which safety experts warned could lead to derailments. Although transit agency employees already got to work in January fixing the faulty tracks, the commission said it still hasn’t received any formal response from the agency.

Regarding the faulty automatic train control system, commission inspectors reported that the Sunset Tunnel, which is used by light-rail vehicles on the N-Judah line, lacked the secure, automated controls designed to prevent crashes between trains passing in the tunnel. The Embarcadero station and the Muni Metro running through West Portal and Embarcadero – where a collision between trains occurred on Oct. 1, 2010 — also registered a failing automated control system.

At the public hearing two weeks ago, the city’s Director of Transit, John Haley, said “there was no clear evidence” that the Oct. 1 accident had anything to do with the train control system.

“We clearly communicated to the SFMTA the safety issues that they needed to address,” said commission spokesperson Terrie Proposer, adding that penalty considerations were under way.

As a result of the agency’s alleged failure to respond to the commission’s accusations, the agency has 30 days to make the necessary reparations to its light-rail system or face up to $20,000 a day in fines.

Muni officials did not respond to the threat of penalty, but said that continuing an open dialogue with the commission was necessary. “We’ll continue to meet with the CPUC,” wrote Muni spokesman Paul Rose in an emailed statement, and “the agency will formulate our official responses and make those public at a future board meeting.”

The safety findings by commission inspectors were reported between July 17, 2009 and Jan. 1, 2011.

The findings by the commission will be presented, at a date yet to be determined, to an administrative law judge who will decide on whether the alleged safety violations merit the fines that have been announced.

In Monday's accident, a KT-Ingleside/Third Street car was hit by the truck at the intersection of Third and 23rd streets in the Dogpatch neighborhood. It took about an hour to clear the site. A Muni spokesman said the truck had made an illegal left turn before striking the light rail vehicle.