What Does “On Time” Mean For the F-line?

The online Bay Citizen, which continues to undertake the kind of journalism that a good daily newspaper should, is out with a detailed report on Muni’s on-time performance, line by line.
Not surprisingly, the F-line doesn’t measure up well.

The article shows that the F-line has the fifth worst on-time record in Muni, behind three LRV lines (the L, M, and K/T) and, the worst of all, the 76-Marin Headlands weekend recreational route. (The three cable car lines don’t appear in the analysis, but there’s little doubt they’d have among the worst on-time records if they were.)
F-line streetcars are only on time 46% of the time, according to the article. (“On time” is defined for Muni vehicles if they arrive at a stop no more than 1 minute ahead of schedule and fewer than 4 minutes behind schedule.)
As a whole, Muni runs 60% on time, hardly a sterling achievement, but still markedly better than the F-line.
But how important is being “on time”? From our perspective the answer is “it depends.”
For almost all transit riders, it’s more about “how long do I have to wait?” instead of “At what moment is the next vehicle supposed to arrive?” Where strict on-time performance really does matter is on lines that don’t run frequently, like the 76-Marin Headlands. If there’s only one bus an hour, and it arrives two minutes early, such that you miss it, you’re going to be (rightly) ticked off. But if the line runs every five minutes or so (as the F-line does much of the day), you’re only going to get ticked off if there’s a big gap in service.
That’s called “headway,” and it’s Muni’s biggest challenge, especially for rail lines. If something blocks the tracks for even a few minutes, streetcars can stack up behind each other. As I’m writing this (June 1 at 1 p.m), for example, our F-line live map shows no streetcars at all in either direction on the Embarcadero or Wharf sections of the F-line north of Pier 7, but several in a row headed that way.
In a well-run rail system, inspectors would “short turn” the first or second streetcar in that group at an available turnaround point (in the F-line’s case, Pier 39) to pick up at least some of the people waiting to go in the opposite direction. But doing that requires dumping some riders short of their destination and telling them to finish their ride on a following car going all the way.
In the case of the F-line, Fisherman’s Wharf merchants have always bristled at dropping “short turn” loads at Pier 39, apparently out of fear that those riders will then not continue on to the Wharf proper. (That’s why, by the way, the switch at Pier 39 is manual — it has to be thrown by hand with a switch iron, rather than being controllable with a button inside the streetcar as the other F-line switches are. Wharf merchants back in the 1990s insisted that the Pier 39 turn back be used for emergencies only.)
But with switching back discouraged (for that matter, effectively prohibited on the outer ends of the LRV lines because of uproar from passengers dumped off at, say Sunset Boulevard when they expected to go further west on that car), it’s very hard for Muni to keep headways consistent along the lines. And consistent headways matter more than rote adherence to a schedule for lines like the F.
(Postscript: In the 15 minutes it’s taken to write this blog, the F-line has gone from having zero streetcars north of the Ferry Building to seven! But there are now ZERO Castro-bound streetcars between the Wharf and Fourth Street! Turning even one streetcar each at the Ferry Building or Pier 39 could have alleviated this problem considerably, but it wasn’t done for whatever reason. That’s the definition of a headway problem.)


Comments: 8

  1. Speaking of “switching back”, I often see J line cars doing just that at Glen Park. Is there a schedule for this occurrence or is it just because cars are late? I think some turn back at 30th St too. This makes a lot of sense because I believe most of the J line’s traffic is on Church St, rather than beyond to Glen Park & Balboa Park. So why should every car go to Balboa Park? Just a question – no reply needed.

  2. I’ll note that a persistent problem with the F-line, despite its popularity, is that management will fill metro runs before they will fill F-line runs…sometimes taking a filled F-line run to fill a metro run. A missing run is by definition off-schedule at EVERY timepoint for the length of the run. The F routinely has 3-7 runs missing every day!
    Metro performance is severely affected by (apparently permanent) recurring defects with the train control system and equipment unreliability. On the rare day when the runs are filled, trains don’t break down, and the signal system doesn’t fail (maybe once or twice a month!) on time performance probably goes well above 90%…amazing how in the best case scenario, metro really does run itself!
    @Don: There are no longer any scheduled short turns on the J. There used to be a few trains a day switching at 30th, but after the switch was replaced and upgraded, the signal system there failed and has never been fixed so operators are disallowed to use the 30th stub[1]. J cars frequently switch back at Glen Park (and Reservoir/Market) for time and place.
    [1] Technically not true…only the OB switch on Church is plugged. An advertant operator may reach the tailtrack by different means!

  3. Who cares if the F Line runs late. The main thing is that it is running and it will eventually get to the end of the line. Mr. and Mrs. visitor is not going to know or care if the PCC Car is 2 minutes or 5 minutes late.

  4. Actually, a whole lot of people care, starting with Market Street Railway. First off, this is not about visitors from our perspective. We have fought hard to make the F-line an attractive, RELIABLE route for San Francisco commuters (1,000 Wharf worker trips daily), shoppers, and other local users. And the F-line is often a lifeline for Upper Market residents when the subway malfunctions (see the comment above). Sure, lots of visitors ride the F, and we’re glad they do. Helps the visitor industry (which means more sales taxes and jobs), plus lots of cash fares for Muni, which desperately needs revenue. But just because a line serves visitors is no excuse for poor service. Moving ALL riders efficiently to where they’re going is Muni’s stated goal and in the case of visitors, the longer they have to wait to catch a streetcar or cable car, the less time they have to spend money at our restaurants and stores. This is why we actively participating in the city’s project to rework Market Street. We want to see faster, more efficient F-line service as part of it.

  5. I agree with Jim Lekas. As a recent visitor to SF and having ridden on the ‘F’ line you should be massively proud that you have the line at all. Elsewhere in the world such things simply don’t exist. To ride a smooth PCC car or one of your imports from all over the world is truly a privilege and one that you should be grateful for, who cares about the frequency of the service, you could be riding in a lurching diesel bus as the automatic transmisson catapults you backward and forward. You also have sublime trolleybuses and BART you guys don’t know youre lucky you are to have such a superb public transport system!
    Kevin Malone
    Durham UK

  6. Sir, what makes you think we have all this because we are “lucky?” So much of the Bay Area’s public transit system — from the creation of the F-line (which exists in large measure because of the persistent advocacy of our members) to the preservation of the cable cars to the retention of trolley buses and the creation of BART — derives directly from citizen advocacy. So of course we’re proud of the F-line. We’re proud of our advocacy that led to the acquisition of additional streetcars, added runs to accommodate the crowds and the ultimate implementation of the E-line, all in an era of increasingly squeezed public budgets. I’m sure you don’t mean to suggest that we should now be complacent and satisfied and somehow accept inferior service. Perhaps those who come to San Francisco every few years or so for a couple of days of rides are content with gaps in service, overcrowded streetcars and other deficiencies. We on the other hand, also represent those who ride the F-line every day, so we are never going to stop trying to make it better — for every rider’s benefit.

  7. I’ve seen both sides of the switchback, having given up on the Metro 12 years ago when the “J” kept getting turned back at 30th, every morning I’d timed it to ride to City College. Then again, when we’re running late, somebody has to be turned back. Another problem though are the handful of operators across the system who just can’t, or won’t make an effort, they run late from beginning to end. Turning these folks back is a form of rewarding them for their lack of effort.
    But the “F” has its own special problems: A new operator in a Milan is a rolling bottleneck, yet how’s she/he going to learn if you keep them in a PCC until they get comfortable on the line? Milans are slow to begin with. But a few operators have issues, and seem to think they’re on a Disneyland ride: I’ve been caught behind them while driving the 6, and the F, and you can see them board, and sit answering questions with the door open, awhile the light is seen changing to red through the length of their car. More people step up, he answers more questions in place, doors open, and believe it or not, the light changes again, two lights missed. Now there are six buses and streetcars in line, nearly bumper to bumper, and I’ve gone from on time, to late, or late to seriously late. These operators need to be reported and made to realize that for all that the “F” is, it’s still a revenue transit line, on a busy street, and not a ride in Disneyland, and for that matter, you don’t see the operators of the Jungle Cruise sitting at the dock, talking to riders, while others wait.

  8. Put on your schedules times are approximate. This is only a fancy word for estimated time of arrival . That curves it quite a bit. They look for buses to be on time Trackless trolleys and Streetcars to the subway surface lines and cable cars. They don’t realize one or more could break down. A accident, fire, traffic jam or someone needing medical attention could cause a mix up in service. I just simply tell them we’re doing the best we can. Or I am working for two service ahead of me broke down. I never say It’s not on the street. That really causes a stir. By the way any word on the double end cars yet. I know I changed the subject just now but, would really like to know. Thank You

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