From a West Portal resident: ‘Wrong Solution to Saturday’s Tragedy’

Photo by Flickr user Jamison Weiser

Media attention has turned to the manual controls of the Muni trains in the West Portal accident. We received the following email from rider and West Portal resident Mark:

Let me first say that my heart goes out to all of those who were injured Saturday afternoon in the Muni accident at West Portal.  That said, I feel like it is necessary to speak my mind on what happened because I feel that I have a unique opinion which I have not yet seen expressed by anyone in the media.

As of Monday, the media has finally drawn its attention to the procedure of taking trains off control of the ATC [editor’s note: Automatic Train Control] prior to entering West Portal Station.  As a long-time resident of the West Portal area, I know that this has been going on almost ever since the ATC went online; any regular Muni patron knows this as well. If there is no train currently in the station, the ATC brings the train in.  If there is already a train in the station, especially if it’s only a one-car train, as it was on Saturday, once the ATC has stopped the train outside of the station, drivers usually switch off the computer and take the train in manually so two trains can load/unload at the same time.  This is a very efficient procedure because West Portal is both a bottleneck inbound and outbound, as only one train can enter/exit at a time, so often during commute hours trains will be waiting to enter/exit West Portal Station.  By allowing the driver to bring in the train in manual mode, the driver takes full advantage of the three-car length platform and speeds things up a bit, which in my experience makes a big difference.

While it is true that if the train were left on the computer Saturday afternoon the crash would not have occurred, one must differentiate between the cause of the accident and something that merely would have prevented it from occurring.  The accident was not caused by the train being taken off ATC early, but of, what looks like at this point, some sort of a medical condition experienced by the driver of the train.  Absent a “blackout” (or with proper attention), the driver could have stopped the train, which is why this procedure has not been a problem for all of these years.  Had the driver “blacked out” five minutes later while driving on the street, he might have driven the L train onto 19th Avenue, possibly causing a multi-car pile up which could have resulted in multiple fatalities.  What occurred on Saturday afternoon was an accident.  It was not due to a mechanical failure of the train nor to the well recognized procedure of taking trains off automatic control early to expedite service at West Portal.  It is absolutely horrible what happened, but not allowing trains to be driven manually into the station behind another train is only going to make a mere 100 feet of the system safer, and will result in significant bottlenecks during the morning and afternoon commutes.

Prior to the implementation of the ATC, trains were always driven manually in the tunnel and drivers are trained to be able to do so.   Unfortunately, accidents will occur and that’s what this was… an accident (or else incompetence).  One needs to realize this before they automatically start pointing the finger at Muni.  Ending this longstanding procedure is only a “feel good” measure, a false security that makes people believe that something has been done, but unfortunately accidents do and will occur.  You can’t look back on a terrible event and say, “if only this” or “if only that”.  Unfortunately, every once in a while, something like this happens.

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