By Thomas K. Pendergast
The N-Judah streetcar leads all other light rail lines in switchbacks, according to a new San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) report, released after the practice was banned completely from the T-Third-line that serves the Bayview District because of “equity” issues.
The SFMTA defines switchbacks as a “tool” used when a vehicle traveling in one direction stops at a location near a switch, off-loads passengers and then continues service – but in the opposite direction, not to the end of the line.
The agency says they are used to “reduce wait times” for people traveling in the opposite direction and in situations where the tracks further along the route are blocked.
The report was presented to the SF Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee on May 13. Monthly statistics on switchbacks in that report show that since October 2018, the N-Judah line has had the most instances of switchbacks on a single line throughout the city. Between October 2018 and April of 2019, the N-Judah had more than 400 switchbacks each month in October, December and March, although April saw them drop down to their lowest level – fewer than 200.
The L-Taraval line, on the other hand, had the fewest number of switchbacks during that period, with approximately 200 in October, December and January, but approximately 100 in February and March.
The T-Third line serves the Oracle Park baseball stadium and the Bayview, one of eight areas included in Muni’s “equity strategy.”
The reports states that the strategy will benefit eight selected equity neighborhoods by using “service treatments” that can be implemented quickly while delivering measurable improvements to safety, connectivity to key destinations, reliability, frequency and crowding. One of those treatments is ending switchbacks on that line altogether.
“We do switchbacks whenever we have several trains all bunched together and then no trains in another part of the system,” SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum told the committee. “We do them to minimize wait times and gaps that we have in another part of the system.”
Bunching occurs when a train picks up so many passengers that it slows the train down enough to throw it off schedule. Meanwhile the trains following along the same route have much fewer passengers than expected because of that, so they catch up to the train taking on most of the passengers.
She acknowledged, however, that riders in outlying areas have expressed frustration with the practice of switchbacks, which was a factor in why they have now stopped altogether on the T-Third line.
“We do know that there are folks that are on the ends of our lines who feel these switchbacks the most acutely, which is why we are experimenting with as many other tools as possible to reduce them,” Kirschbaum said.
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar said he recognized why switchbacks were stopped on the T-Third line but then asked about the N-Judah line.
“I understand why the T-line should be prioritized as a historically underserved line but I also think we should have a conversation … about also prioritizing changes that will have the most impact for the most riders,” Mar said. “So, it’s my understanding that the N-Judah line has the highest ridership in the system, and in February and March it also experienced the most switchbacks. Actually, absent the T-line, it looks like the N -line also experienced the most switchbacks of any line in October, November and December.
“So, are you able to commit to ending switchbacks on the N-Judah line considering it’s the most heavily used line?” Mar asked.
“I think we’re going to learn a lot from the T-line and would like to really understand that before I enter into that type of commitment,” Kirschbaum responded. “Because the N-Judah has the double challenge of being our heaviest ridership line but also has an incredible amount of it that’s in mixed traffic.”
She suggested that ending switchbacks without close management might actually produce an overall negative impact on N-Judah riders.
District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai said that while switchbacks are justifiable in certain circumstances, like when rail cars bunch up together, he wondered if Muni was abusing the practice.
“I have to say I’ve traveled to New York, Boston, other places, I just never remember ever experiencing the level of switchbacks that happen here in our system,” Safai said. “So, I think something else is going on. It seems like we abuse it in our system and so the riders are the ones left holding the bag because they can’t get to where they’re going. It sounds like it’s not as coordinated of a system as it should be.
“You’re letting people on and then a few stops later saying ‘no, you have to get off’ and then there’s no information about when the next car is coming,” he said. “I understand trying to adjust gaps in the system but it seems like we’re overusing this process.
“You’re stopping it on one of the rail lines altogether. So how is it that you’re able to stop it on one rail line altogether but you’re not able to do it in another place? That doesn’t make sense to the average person. How are you able to do that?”
Kirshbaum explained that ending switchbacks on the T-line, which took place on April 6, is more of an experiment in how to deal without switchbacks, using “gap trains” to fill in and gathering data as a method of learning how to rely less on switchbacks for other lines.
“We’re learning things from that experience that we’ll apply to other systems, other routes,” she said. “It is extremely labor intensive. It’s not something that has been easy to even just tread water in terms of how we understand Third Street.
“No system is perfect. I don’t think that’s a reasonable goal. We do want to do better. We do want to provide great service,” Kirschbaum added.