Central Subway speedrun


I can't believe I've been posting about this project for ten years. Remember Mom Chung and Big Alma?

Mission Local has some unkind words:

As an ostensible cost-saving measure, the Central Subway tunnel platforms were designed to only accommodate two-car trains -- a disastrous decision, among so many disastrous decisions, that singularly dooms this multi-billion dollar project to failure. [...]

"As a transit nerd and subway fan, it is painful how badly they built this subway," laments former longtime BART commissioner Tom Radulovich. "There is incredible awkwardness built into the Central Subway, and we're going to be reckoning with it for a long time." [..]

The ridership capacity that would have justified this multi-billion dollar project is now impossible to achieve. Even if people flock to take this rail line, two-car trains will quickly fill up and be overwhelmed. [...] Simply put: The Central Subway cannot carry the ridership numbers that were used to justify its existence. And post-facto enlarging the platforms in the now-completed subterranean stations would be fantastically disruptive and costly -- if it were even possible at all. [...]

"Subways can provide high-capacity transit for a lot of people. This subway won't," sums up Radulovich. "They designed it with very short platforms." And this, he continues, will lead to cascading problems. The dense development planned along the path of the Central Subway was meant to be served by a high-ridership line. "But it's N-Judah capacity," Radulovich says, "not BART capacity."

The plan was, "let's basically build New York-style density. But on a streetcar line that can only run two-car trains," he adds. "It's a real mismatch." [...]

This rail line is essentially an orphan, and its failure to be a step toward establishing a true subway network represents a spectacular missed opportunity for San Francisco. As it is, the transfer from the Central Subway's Union Square/Market Street station to Powell Street Station requires a 1,018-foot walk -- nearly three football fields. There's also an 85-foot ascent and an estimated travel time of seven minutes, six seconds.

Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.

Tags: , , ,

13 Responses:

  1. 1

    My older kid (who's eight) is seriously into trains, and has a particular fondness for SF transit, so we read lots of books about the history of the city's train and streetcar lines. The kid clearly has some sadness about the fact that SF used to have various sorts of rail lines going almost everywhere (they were livid when they learned about what happened to the Key System), and is constantly devising schemes by which they will restore the city's former rail-glory.

    I don't have the heart to explain the reality of the situation to them.

    • jwz says:

      Have you visited the Cable Car Museum? It's small but really great! And it's also inside the operating cable car head end, so you get to see the giant wheels turning.

      • 2

        We have, and the kids loved it! We should definitely go back soon, though, as the last time we went was pre-COVID (COVID got us out of the habit of indoor museums, and we haven't really gotten back to them yet).

      • MattyJ says:

        I happened to be there one time when they were connecting the ends of a new cable. Made me think about how many people in the world know how to do that. It was pretty cool to watch.

  2. bbd says:

    I'm not usually one for conspiracy theories (aside from entertainment value), but this reads a lot like the whole project was sabotaged from within the planning committee/office. Or at least whoever came up with those at-odds specs. It's not like nobody in the world knows how to do this properly.

    • jwz says:

      I mean, it kind of reminds me of the Space Shuttle: made useless by mission creep and competing agendas.

    • thielges says:

      Same here. Not sure whether it is a conspiracy or just endemic apathy about creating excellent transit combined with enthusiasm to spend big. 

      More examples:
      - Oakland Airport Connector (OAC)
      - BART to SFO, especially the leg between SFO and Millbrae.   While it provides good service to SF, that connection screws over everyone south of Millbrae. 
      Both of the above connections would be better served by a cheap and clunky old rental car lot bus.  But no, billions of transit dollars had to be sacrificed for these pet projects. 

      - VTA light rail’s slow and meandering routes.   They even shut down the spur to Almaden, mothballing hundreds of millions of recently built infrastructure. 
      - BART to downtown San Jose is about to be built with an expensive single bore stacked track configuration.   Even if you’re ok with the immolation of cash, we should be livid about the depths that passengers will need to descend to reach the platform.   The extra time to travel vertically will add minutes to every journey and cripple this part the system forever.   All this to appease a few downtown SJ businesses who oppose a more traditional shallow cut and cover construction.   80% of those businesses will close within a decade anyways regardless of construction.  You can check the turnover spanning the last two decades.   There’s single digit count of Santa Clara Street businesses that survived from 1999 and they are mostly chains like 7-11 and KFC.
      - that dumb eBART line in the middle of Hwy.4, imposing a transfer delay just to reach the last 2 stops.
      - Clipper.  Two decades after deployment it is still mostly just an e-cash card.  One that is a leech sucking away the meager fare box receipts.  

      There’s probably more but let’s not forget how uncoordinated transfers between the dozens of transit operators are. Inter-agency travel could be so much better with zero additional capital investment.   Just move some ink on timetables.  https://www.seamlessbayarea.org/

      • Doctor Memory says:

        The southbay BART tunnel makes my head explode every time I think about it.  They may as well just all wear t-shirts with "We're only in it for the contracting money" printed in the sex pistols font it's so obvious that nobody involved in any of that series of cascading failures has any intention of ever using this thing after it's built.  Would anyone even notice if they took two lanes at a time from ECR to do this?  I submit to you that they would not.

  3. Doctor Memory says:

    While I don't disagree that the costs were insane and the platform length was a dumb decision...

    Ctrl-F "headways"

    ...crickets.  It's a four-stop line that would be easy to de-interline from the 3rd Street portion and doesn't share fate with the Market Street tunnel.  Even Muni (cue dry laughter) should be able to run that at 3 minute headways at peak hour if ridership justifies it.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      Right, frequency is what allows you to deliver metro service, which makes a huge difference to whether people use it. Once you hit frequencies where people just show up and board a train, that is when you might care whether the trains are big enough, but my guess is San Francisco thinks four trains per hour is actually a service.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I concur re headways. What's good for a station wagon full of tapes is not as good for a mass transit system. Better that you should be able to catch even a single car train right when you need it than that you can get on a long, luxurious train but you have to wait forever for it to show up.  

    Anyway, Boston (which uses basically compatible rolling stock -- the old LRVs were from there) usually managed to squeeze in a third car by letting the nose of the front car go beyond the end of the platform, since it's just the doors that need to be accessed. I don't know what the platform length here is, but maybe a three car consist could be crammed in someday? The video makes it look like there's some room that isn't being used.

  5. Eric says:

    Let's also not forget that the subway has one scissor switch at the end, just like the one that caused absurd turnaround times at Embarcadero until they extended the tunnel with several more switches.

    It's still a better design than what they were proposing originally though.

  6. Elliot M Block says:

    The debacle of the Central Subway will affect new transit projects for years.  The same is for the ridiculous Van Ness BRT for only ONE Muni line running at 10 minute intervals.  No voter is going to approve any new projects as these were unbelievably poorly  designed and massively overpriced

  • Previously