The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has implemented a number of guidelines aimed at increasing safety in the days since two Muni light rail vehicles crashed, injuring nearly 50 people and triggering a federal investigation.
The “immediate action plan” includes a number of steps that have been taken since the crash that aim to boost safety by setting guidelines and issuing reminders of policy regarding operating modes of light rail vehicles.
This follows an investigation into the Saturday afternoon crash at the West Portal station that revealed the operator switched the L-Taraval train into manual mode 24 seconds before the light rail vehicle plowed into a K-Ingleside train.
Muni trains are supposed to remain in automatic mode, not manual mode, when traveling through the station.
As of this Monday, train operators will be written up if they are observed in manual, or cutout, mode without authorization from central control.
Additionally, if a train is seen moving in manual control without central control permission, the train controller will stop the train and contact its operator. Hourly announcements started Monday to remind operators that they must not go into manual mode or bypass any vehicle function, or change operating modes, without approval from central control.
Also on Monday, a bulletin was issued to light rail vehicle operators to remind them of existing rules and instructions regarding the changing of operating modes.
Supervisors at the Embarcadero, Church and Duboce and West Portal stations have also been alerted of the enforcement regarding the changing of operating modes.
“These quick actions show that we will take all necessary steps to make the system as safe as possible,” Muni spokesman Judson True said Tuesday evening.
The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate the Saturday crash, which happened at about 2:50 p.m. at the West Portal station. The investigation could take up to a year, according to the NTSB.
On Monday, a union spokesman said the operator of the light rail vehicle blacked out just before the accident.
Investigators have declined to discuss whether the train operator experienced a medical problem prior to the crash, but said the train’s emergency brake was not activated prior to the impact.
The operator, identified as Henry Gray, started with Muni as a bus driver in 1979 and had worked as a light rail operator since 2007.
Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Irwin Lum acknowledged Monday that Muni trains are supposed to remain in automatic mode, not manual mode.
However, he said the operator’s decision to switch the train into manual mode prior to the crash is not unusual. Muni operators, he said, with the approval of the dispatch and control center, have for the past three or four years commonly operated under manual mode to speed up service for passengers.
“We want to set the record straight that these things have been going on for three or four years and it’s a known issue,” Lum said.
He said trains in automatic mode take minutes longer to enter the platform than a train operated in manual mode and said the union is upset because up until Saturday’s crash, operating in manual mode was common practice, and now “it’s being portrayed like the operator did something that was wrong.”
True said since the SFMTA started implementation of the new plan, “We haven’t seen any impact on service.”
The collision left 47 people injured, Muni officials said. San Francisco General Hospital spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said Monday that 15 people were taken to that hospital’s emergency room after the crash, and that 11 were released the same day.
Of the four people admitted, three remained at the hospital Monday two in “good” condition and one in “fair” condition, she said.
She said the fourth person admitted to the hospital Saturday has been transferred to another hospital.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said Monday the agency is investigating Muni procedures and said it’s too soon to draw any conclusions about operators using manual mode versus automatic mode.
He said the agency is working to schedule interviews with both operators involved in the collision, as well as those working in the dispatch control center and any eyewitnesses to the crash.