When a Muni K-T Line train in auto-mode took off from the Castro station without its driver Wednesday morning, if the 30 passengers who were on board had done nothing, the train would have come to a stop all on its own at the next station, opened the doors, and stayed there.
But if someone had been on the tracks, that would have been disastrous. When in auto-control mode, an operator has to push the red emergency brake, what they call the "mushroom," to stop the train.
"But without an operator, there isn't anyone to push the mushroom if they see someone on the trackway. That's why it's ideal to have an operator in the cab when operating these trains in auto-control," SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said.
Susan Moore was on the train Wednesday morning and was engrossed in her cellphone when someone came running up the aisle. "I don't want to say totally frantic, but raised voice, there's no driver on the train," she recalled.
Moore says the passengers simply reacted, pulling the emergency brake lever and trying by any means possible to communicate with Muni. Cellphones wouldn't work inside the tunnel. They had no idea if a train might be coming up behind them.
Muni says there is a way for Central Control to communicate with the passengers over a loudspeaker, but they don't know why that didn't happen Wednesday. "We just didn't know what was happening, what to expect," Moore told ABC7 news.
The driver is suspended with pay while Muni investigates exactly what went wrong.