Muni to test three-car Metro trains

West Portal Muni
Photo by Danny Howard

Add this to the “OMG FINALLY” files. Local news outlets have reported recently on Muni’s attempts to speed up underground and tunnel service. How? By running three-car trains through parts of its Metro system.

Muni Metro trains are unusually short compared to other subways, limited to one or two cars so they won’t block traffic as they crawl along surface streets after emerging from the tunnel. Under the new plan, [director of transit operations for Muni, John] Haley said that one- and two-car trains would be hitched together as they enter the subway at the West Portal or Embarcadero stations during rush hour — and disconnected once again when they popped out. /The Bay Citizen

As SF Appeal‘s April Siese points out:

It’s unclear from the BC article exactly why hooking up multiple trains would make things go faster — though they report that “delays on just one line can grind the whole system to a halt,” it seems like delays on a big, long, hooked up train will be just as system-clogging.

We’d love to hear what you think of this idea. Will joining trains for their journey underground help to speed up the chronically sluggish Muni Metro system?

Read more at The Bay Citizen and SF Appeal.


  • I remember Muni hitching trains up as they entered the tunnel back in the ’80s/’90s. It should speed things up because whether there’s one, two, or three cars on a train, each train takes about the same amount of time at the station. Hitching them together means there are less trains overall in the tunnel, which theoretically should reduce delays by providing a little more headway between trains.

    • Paul J. Lucas

      Things were originally planned to join K, L, and M cars together from Embarcadero to West Portal where they’d split. I had heard, however, that Breda (the manufacturer) didn’t adequately design the couplers to ensure such frequent coupling and decoupling (which would explain why Muni doesn’t currently do that).

  • Erik

    It is faster because you eliminate the time gap between those trains. It’s effectively the same as removing half the trains from the tunnel.

  • I sure as hell hope so. Also, what happened to the Castro Shuttle? That helped things a lot, but it seems to have disappeared.

  • BBnet3000

    Plenty of cities with much more onerous space restrictions than the Sunset district manage to run trams in the road longer than 2 cars…. (any medium sized older city in Europe)

  • JK

    If anyone might also reveal the mystery of why Muni doesn’t always run 2-car trains — especially during rush hour — this recent Chicago transplant would love to know. The public transportation in this town is laughably sad (laughing to keep from crying, that is).

  • You’ll never see a two-car J or K, and I think that’s because there are some stops along the line that aren’t long enough to handle the trains. I believe that’s one of the reasons three-car trains aren’t used outside of the tunnels, either. I also recall hearing that the Breda cars were damaging the overhead wires or tracks (or both) when ran as three-car trains.

    The SF Muni system was never designed for the kind of volume it sees today, and it hasn’t been upgraded since it was built over 30 years ago. Since the system is really a streetcar with a tunnel segment, it can’t really be done the way Chicago’s is handled. I agree that improvements need to be made, but an amazing amount of benefits will come from two things: fix the tunnel/track/etc (especially between Castro and Forest Hill, but anywhere it needs improvements), and update the lines so that three cars can run on each train. Of course, Muni will need to buy more Bredas (or other new trains) to run at the new capacity.

    As for the other lines – slow buses, etc – dedicated transit lanes and/or streets will fix most of the problems. Other municipalities have closed entire downtown streets for transit. Market would be my best bet. And I would fast-track dedicated transit lanes on Stockton, Geary, and Van Ness. Just remove parking on Stockton (they don’t even enforce the meters) and put transit lanes down the middle. Abandon the pointless Central Subway – they could run it above-ground in dedicated lanes much cheaper and quicker, and then extend it all the way out to Fisherman’s Wharf. And who says this has to be a subway or streetcar. Evidence shows that bus and rail run at the same speed and efficiency given the same opportunities (dedicated lanes, signal priority, all-door boarding with proof of payment).

    And that, by the way, is partly why our subway system is so much slower and less reliable than others – outside the tunnel, it has the same problems bus lines do. If you want to compare something to NYC or Chicago, look at BART – it’s a true subway, with dedicated right-of-way, long trains, and proof-of-payment (pay at the station instead of on the train).

    • Just one point, Ryan: You’re right about the reason Muni doesn’t run three-car trains. It’s because only the underground stations can handle that length. The proposed improvement that Muni is testing would couple trains (a 2-car couples with a 1-car, for example) only when they reach the tunnel. When they exit, they decouple.

      • Jeff, at least it’s a start. It would be nice to see the system upgraded to handle 3 car trains outside of the tunnels, or at least 2 car trains on the J and K. I don’t see many places along any of the routes where blocking one cross street of traffic for 90 seconds every 10 minutes or so will cause a major traffic build-up, as long as it’s not a street like 19th Avenue.

    • loren

      i totally agree…
      however, i see two-car J’s running every day… they just don’t let any passengers on the second car (for the reasons you mentioned)… which is pretty wasteful and frustrating to see when you’ve been waiting for an N for over 20mins during rush hour and there were already 3 J’s right in front of it, so the whole thing is empty.

      i also really hate it when i see 2-car J’s and a single-car N shows up, packed like a sardine can. so pointless and annoying… and if they can’t get their shit around that together, i imagine coupling and uncoupling trains constantly will be a giant clusterfuck.

      • makfan

        A lot of the 2-car J trains are trains going to the yard. There is no yard along the N-line, so N-trains use the J-line to the yard.

        There really isn’t quite enough ridership on the J-line for 2-car trains.

        If they can couple quickly, then 3-car trains will help keep capacity up while reducing the number of train movements. That will reduce some of the strain on the subway portion.

        Yeah, what did happen to the Castro shuttle? It was a life saver some days.

  • Bob Davis

    A closer analogy to Muni Metro would be the MBTA (Boston) green line, which started out over 110 years ago as a subway to get streetcars through downtown with fewer delays. The trains come out of downtown and diverge into four different lines going to the western residential areas. Back in the 1970’s, MBTA ran three-car trains of PCCs (like the cars on Market St., only with multiple-unit couplers). I’m not sure if they split the trains after they came out of the tunnel or not. Philadelphia also has a subway-surface streetcar system, but I think the SEPTA operation is strictly single cars.

  • Dexter Wong

    I was around when Muni Metro (the subway) started back in the 1980s and they tried all sorts of train combinations. I once saw 4 cars hooked up on Ocean Ave. headed inbound. They were using 2-car N trains right from the start, but when it came to the Twin Peaks Tunnel lines they wanted KML trains outbound and LMK trains inbound. But in practice, the L car sometimes ended up on the rear or in the middle. It took a little time to unhook cars at West Portal. Also coordinating arrivals inbound at West Portal could be a problem, if a car was late the two already hooked up could be sent ahead if waiting longer would cause a schedule delay. After the J line was converted to Boeings in 1982, they tried running 2 Ns and a J in the subway but coordination was a problem, so eventually Ns and Js ran separately.

  • Maxi Slate

    The reason why the 2nd car is taken out of service on the J line is that the stop on Liberty doesn’t have enough space to load/unload people.

    The reason why the 2nd car is taken out of service on the K line is on Ocean Av. where there are small islands, there is obviously no room to accommodate the 2nd car and motorists tend to speed through Ocean, which makes the boarding/exing from the 2nd car very dangerous.

  • JK

    Thanks all for enlightening me on the ways of the Muni and why 2-car trains, etc. aren’t always feasible. Seems there’s something that could be done with above-ground stops to accommodate them, though.

    Still wondering whether the coupling of trains underground might cause confusion with boarding — i.e. The first two are an N, but the last car’s a J, for instance.

    Another, separate thought: Since the underground MUNI stations get so crowded during rush hour, has there ever been any thought given to having certain lines board at one of two designated zones along the platform inside the station? Right now, it’s a free-for-all, having to nudge, move, and otherwise climb past folks who might not need the line that’s entered the station. The platforms inside the station extend so long that it could be a good idea to at least offer some better waiting conditions and easier boarding.

    • I’m sure things can be done to lengthen stops along the J and K lines (and all of them, really, to get up to three-car operation) but Muni doesn’t have the money or doesn’t want to spend it. And having the ability to run two or three car trains doesn’t mean they will – I see way too many single car M trains, and I know there are single Ns and Ls. There just aren’t enough cars to go around.

      I think there could be confusion at first as people get used to seeing different lines on the same train, but if the voices from above can be heard (since they already announce “two car, M, M”), car signage is accurate, and (here’s the kicker) the overhead signs work accurately, it should be a short learning curve.

      I’ve considered that at times, but if this three-car boarding works, that could be difficult. Plus, it would mean messing with the already temperamental track control system. What would help more would be training riders to queue as they do in Japan (it’s amazing how well they line up – look it up sometime).

  • It would without a doubt mean fewer delays on Muni … oh, how many times I’ve been stuck in a car that can’t disembark because it’s waiting behind another train. If they would only make full use of the platforms for boarding, that alone would speed things up significantly.

    During rush hour the trains board back-to-back at Embarcadero, and it would make sense to send them down the line coupled to each other to maximize boarding area space and prevent so much jostling in the crowds. Nothing would make me happier than to hear an announcement for “three-car N N J,” or “three-car M M K.” KLM groupings would make sense on the weekends too, if they ran more trains! Even a two-car MK combination would make sense (decoupling could happen after West Portal to minimize delays on the busier L). The fact that the K and N currently run past Embarcadero could make timing a difficulty.

    And dare I wish for four-car trains? It can be done; they have the signs for it! LLMM is the first combination that comes to mind. JKLM would be fun to see too, with the J parting ways at Van Ness. Or NNJK …

    So much crowding happens before Van Ness as people pile on the trains downtown, and not everyone is headed past Market. Longer configurations would help with the boarding delays a lot!

  • NJ

    Has there been any progress on three-car Muni trains?

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