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San Francisco promises to stop reversing T Third Street trains

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Loathed “switchbacks” will cease, says Muni agency

A T Third Street train at Castro Station.
Muni pledges that all T trains will complete the trek to Sunnydale.
Photo by Bill Morrow

Last week, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) promised to end the frustrating practice of “switchbacks” on the T Third Street Muni line—but only on the T line.

A switchback is when an outbound Muni train stops short of its terminus and reverses direction, a maneuver that results in passengers having to deboard the train and wait for a new one.

According to an SFMTA statement, the pledge is part of Muni’s “Service Equity Strategy,” a city initiative to improve transit in eight underserved areas in SF—Chinatown, the Tenderloin, the Western Addition, the Mission, Bayview, Visitacion Valley, Outer Mission/Excelsior, and Oceanview/Ingleside.

Switchbacks happen on every line but were particularly unpopular on the T, which has the longest route in the city, beginning as the K Ingleside at Balboa Park station and becoming the T from West Portal Station to the Sunnydale public housing site (assuming it gets that far).

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents much of the area serviced by the T and vowed to end switchbacks after being sworn into office earlier this year, praised the announcement, framing it as an equity issue.

“[Switchbacks] cause the train not to finish the route and leave entire communities of color stuck without a way home,” said Walton.

Mayor London Breed approved as well, saying, “We not only need to end switchbacks, we need to do more to invest in our transportation infrastructure so that our trains and buses are consistently on-time and reliable.”

In February, the combined K/T line had an on-time rating of just 41 percent, according to SFMTA data.

In the 12 months prior, the line’s on-time figure dropped as low as 27 percent and was never higher than 46 percent. For comparison, the combined on-time rating for all SF light rail in February was 45 percent.

Switchbacks are supposed to fix gaps in service and get tardy trains back on schedule. Muni says one of the reasons they happen on the T line so frequently is that the existing schedule provides unrealistic estimates of how quickly vehicles could complete the route, which will now be adjusted.

In 2017, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that switchbacks had increased 57 percent on Muni since 2013. The T line saw a smaller spike—43 percent—than many other routes in that same period. Switchbacks were most common on the N Judah line that year.

A civil grand jury investigating Muni service in 2012 scourged the transit agency for employing switchbacks, calling the practice antithetical to the City Charter:

Management claimed that use of switchbacks improves overall system performance and that it is a standard practice among metropolitan transit systems in the United States and Europe. Neither of these claims is supported by facts or evidence.

On the contrary, Muni could provide no statistical support for performance improvement as a result of switchbacks, and San Francisco is in the distinct minority in using this practice to reduce delays.

[...] Our survey found only one other [public transit] system using switchbacks in the normal course of business. The others felt this practice was unnecessary and disrespectful to their riders.

At the time, Muni defended itself by claiming, “While we implement switchbacks less than one percent of the time, we utilize this tool to improve service for the vast majority of our daily passengers.”

SFMTA refused to cede to the grand jury recommendation that the city cut out switchbacks entirely, but has now acquiesced on one of its seven light rail lines.