After only one weekday back in service, all Muni light-rail trains are going offline again for at least several weeks following an equipment failure on Monday, and a worker in the Muni Metro control center testing positive for COVID-19.

An overhead line failed near West Portal on Monday, and as SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin explained on Twitter Monday night, this was the second failure of new wire splices in just three days. "So much for our crews’ hard work addressing deferred maintenance these last few months," he wrote.

This was just "Problem 1," that arose on the third day of trains being back in service for the first time since shutting down in March. "Problem 2," Tumlin explained, is that "An employee in our Transportation Management Center – the nerve center of our rail system – tested positive for COVID." What this means, he said, as the SFMTA begins following its contact-tracing and quarantining protocols for other workers in the control center, is that "we can't operate the system safely."

"Our rail system has small teams of amazing technical experts. The system doesn't work if a few of them are out," Tumlin said. "It was fear of this scenario that caused us to shut system in April."

The SFTMA said in a brief announcement that all train service will be replaced by buses once again, starting Tuesday. As KRON4 reports, this will be the case for "several weeks" or "the foreseeable future.

Tumlin said that if there was any upside to the mandatory quarantining of control-center workers, it's that it will give the SFMTA time to address these faulty splices in the system's overhead wires. He said they had found a U.S. distributor for the Swiss splices they need. "Shutting down the subway for quarantine will allow us to replace the new splices," he says, adding, "Splices should be stronger than the wire itself."

Of course this all adds up to more costs that Muni can hardly afford right now, operating at about 20-percent capacity with a projected $200 million budget shortfall. But Tumlin tries to stay upbeat about it all and says, "While today's troubles expose the vulnerabilities of our rail system, they also show the phenomenal resiliency of our buses, and confirm the hard choices we made back in April. COVID is forcing all systems to be more resilient and adaptable."

It's not yet clear when both the splice-replacement project and the quarantining of workers will be complete. For now, it's back to buses.

Photo: Matt Baume