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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  • Jamison Wieser

    I’m not sure why a shortage of drivers would cause two-car trains to be reduced to one-car since it still takes the same number of operators, there’s probably something else going on too.

    It’s more complicated than just Muni needing more drivers, which it does. Muni only hires bus operators because of a union agreement that only allows an operator to apply to be trained to drive a train after they’ve driven a bus for 3 years. I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but I’ve heard snickering comments that this keeps away a lot of drivers who apply to BART instead because they have no interest in driving a bus.

    As MattyMatt said, it takes about 6 months to train a bus operator to drive and once they get passed the class room that becomes one-on-one with a teacher in a vehicle, which is also a vehicle that’s not available for service while it’s being used for training.

    Not everyone passes after that six month, and not everyone who goes through it decides they want to drive a train after all and would rather stay with bus operations.

    Even if we have enough drivers, what about support staff? Other supporting jobs are frozen and as people retire or leave those positions are not being refilled. Muni Metro East (MME) the brand new, state-of-the-art rail yard built along the T-Line sits empty because only 10% of the staff for it was filled before the freeze went into effect. We may get to a point we have enough drivers, but don’t have enough vehicles working for them to drive.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I’m not sure why a shortage of drivers would cause two-car trains to be reduced to one-car since it still takes the same number of operators, there’s probably something else going on too.

    It’s more complicated than just Muni needing more drivers, which it does. Muni only hires bus operators because of a union agreement that only allows an operator to apply to be trained to drive a train after they’ve driven a bus for 3 years. I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but I’ve heard snickering comments that this keeps away a lot of drivers who apply to BART instead because they have no interest in driving a bus.

    As MattyMatt said, it takes about 6 months to train a bus operator to drive and once they get passed the class room that becomes one-on-one with a teacher in a vehicle, which is also a vehicle that’s not available for service while it’s being used for training.

    Not everyone passes after that six month, and not everyone who goes through it decides they want to drive a train after all and would rather stay with bus operations.

    Even if we have enough drivers, what about support staff? Other supporting jobs are frozen and as people retire or leave those positions are not being refilled. Muni Metro East (MME) the brand new, state-of-the-art rail yard built along the T-Line sits empty because only 10% of the staff for it was filled before the freeze went into effect. We may get to a point we have enough drivers, but don’t have enough vehicles working for them to drive.