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The Great Blackout of 1998

Because San Francisco is such an environmentally conscious city, they decided that whenever possible, all bus lines and subway lines should run on electric power. DC cables line most of the city, and the major downtown lines all are electric. On top of that, the subways are all electric.

Well, guess what happens when the power goes out for a whole city, and the public transit system doesn’t have backup generators…

At 8:18am, the buses and subways just stopped. No coasting, no warning, they just stopped. The people who were above ground were lucky. They could just get out and walk to where they needed to go. However, for the estimated 2000 people who were stuck underground, they had to be evacuated through the subway tunnels. Some people were stuck underground for hours before they saw daylight again.

MUNI responded by running all of their diesel buses (about 500 of them) along all of the major routes. In addition, Da Mayor, Willie Brown, declared the city in a state of emergency, so all buses were running for free. Unfortunately, at about 9:45, when the radio reported that the power would be out for 2-5 more hours, everybody who had made it downtown to work decided to go home. An estimated 35,000 people who counted on some form of public transit to make it home were suddenly trying to cram into packed buses which were running on a reduced schedule. Many decided just to walk.

At 1:30, right before the power came back on, Janet and I observed buses, jam packed with people making their way to the residential districts.

Still, throughout all of this, Mayor Brown still insists that MUNI ran admirably. I believe that they certainly made the best of the hand they were dealt. But if this is how poorly they handled a simple power outage, I shudder to think what will happen after the next big earthquake.

Posted in Muni Chronicles.

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