One Monday back in late January, Muni discovered that not enough drivers had come into work that day, so they could only send out 101 trains for the morning commute — down from the regularly scheduled 114. Seven runs were skipped during rush hour, but many more were were shortened from two-car to one-car runs, packing passengers against each other like smoldering cigarettes in the dislocated jaw of a record-breaking smoker.

“Each and every day our staff works to get out as much Muni service as possible,” Muni spokesman Judson True wrote to us in an email when we asked about the staffing shortage, “We are disappointed any time our service is not at the level it should be.” Fair enough. Lapses like these are rare; Muni’s vehicle availability almost always meets regularly-scheduled levels. (Of course, whether or not those regularly-scheduled levels are sufficient is a conversation for another day.)

demandavail.jpgSo what are they doing about days like January 26, when a driver shortage put about a dozen trains out of commission? In a follow-up phone conversation with Judson, he explained that Muni’s training drivers as fast as they can — at a rate of around 50 or so every six months, with only a fraction of those trainees passing the course. Actual job postings are infrequent; instead, Muni puts out periodic calls for interested parties, builds up a huge list of applicants, and then invites them to apply over the course of the following years. They’re expecting to put out their next call sometime over this summer. Training is rigorous, and only a handful of the original list eventually makes it behind the wheel.

Yesterday’s Examiner reported that Muni’s managed to turn around its dwindling employment — now, instead of losing drivers every year, they’re gaining new ones. But they still need more: out of a pool of around 2,200 operators, about 200 (!) are out on long-term leave, so Muni’s looking to hire new folks to replace them.

So the news about Muni’s staffing levels boils down to a mixed bag: they don’t have enough drivers, but they’re constantly bringing in more. And it’s a good thing, too: while the number of transit operators has been growing, the number of riders has swelled, too. And thanks to Muni’s pool of drivers, just under three quarters of those riders will get where they’re going on time.

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