Muni ends unpopular ‘switchbacks’ on T line so trains go to outer neighborhoods

For years, Muni Metro’s 23rd Street rail stop, toward the end of the gentrifying Dogpatch neighborhood, served as a symbolic border: T-Third trains would go out of service there, leaving passengers stranded on their way to the poorer, southeast corner of San Francisco.

The transit agency ended the practice on that line this month and is looking to eliminate it on others, following a spirited campaign by Supervisor Shamann Walton and Mayor London Breed. And riders are starting to see the difference.

“I noticed something but I just couldn’t put my finger on it,” said Joshua Charles, a Bayview resident who often got marooned halfway home. Like other commuters, he’d sometimes opt to walk, rather than stand on the platform for 20 minutes.

Switchbacks, which occur when trains turn around in the middle of a route, have plagued the T since its inception in 2007. Though Muni uses this strategy to spread service more evenly when trains bunch in one direction and space too far apart in the other, it can seem unfair and arbitrary to customers who have to get off and wait.

In recent years, it’s become more common to hit the end of the line before the end of the line. Muni ordered 1,800 switchbacks in January, up from 1,600 last October. During that interim, the abrupt drop-offs increased from about 300 to more than 400 on the J-Church, doubled from about 100 to more than 200 on the M-Oceanview, and hovered at about 500 on the T-Third, which becomes the K-Ingleside after crossing through Embarcadero station.

Residents on the more prosperous westside have long complained about the inconvenience, but it’s been a more glaring social issue on the T, said Muni’s acting chief Julie Kirschbaum. Riding the T provides a virtual tour through the inequities of San Francisco, from the booming waterfront neighborhoods along Embarcadero and Mission Bay, past the soon-to-open Chase arena, and into the industrial Bayview.

Commuter awaits the T Muni line train at the UCSF Medical Center station on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova / Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova / Special To The Chronicle

Commuter awaits the T Muni line train at the UCSF Medical Center station on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. San Francisco, Calif.

The disparities along that route make switchbacks more vexing, Kirschbaum said, since they hurt riders in the outer neighborhoods of Bayview, Visitacion Valley and Sunnydale. Muni directed more attention to those riders in recent years, hoping to bridge economic divisions by improving transportation service.

The agency ended switchbacks on the T line on April 6, shortly after moving its control center from a bunker in West Portal to a new office downtown, where staff are better equipped to monitor the trains and intervene when they start bunching. Muni also changed its schedule so that service would be more evenly spaced overall, Kirschbaum said. She hopes to eventually curtail switchbacks on other lines.

Walton hailed these reforms as a victory.

“I’ve always felt this was something we could do right away,” he said.

Some riders who boarded the T Tuesday morning said they’ve noticed the line hasn’t stopped mid-route in the past couple weeks. Mirakle Becker, who was heading downtown from the Bayview, seemed pleased by the change.

“It used to be that I’m on the train, and all of a sudden I hear the operator tell everyone to get off,” Becker said. “But recently I haven’t had a problem.”

Commuters await the T Muni line outbound train at the Evans station on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova / Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova / Special To The Chronicle

Commuters await the T Muni line outbound train at the Evans station on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. San Francisco, Calif.

Others were wary.

“Well, if they really do this, it would be a nice surprise,” said Rene Lewis. She’s ridden the T for years, growing accustomed to its glacial pace. The $667 million rail line was supposed to deliver brisk service to the city’s most isolated pockets, but instead it gets stuck at intersections or in the tangle of traffic — switchbacks only added to the perception that the T was designed for the bustling waterfront, rather than the neglected southeast.

That thought made Lewis grimace.

“They’ll put up a ‘No Passengers’ sign and say, ‘This is your last stop,’” she said. “And then I have to get off and wait 20 minutes. And I’m like ‘What? I just got on this train.’”

She shook her head. “It’s just not right.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rswan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rachelswan

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Muni-ends-despised-switchbacks-on-T-line-so-13772924.php.

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