San Francisco's light rail to upgrade from floppy disks

What is it with Fog City and ancient transport tech?

Those taking public transport in the tech hub of San Francisco may be reassured to know that their rides will soon no longer be dependent on floppy disks.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's director of transportation Jeffrey Tumlin told ABC that the city's automatic light-rail control system is running on outdated tech and "relies on three five-inch floppy disks" to boot up. The reporter was holding a 3.5-inch disk in the broadcast, so may have just skipped the word "point".

The system is working just fine, but we know that with each year the risk of data degradation increases

"It's a question of risk," Tumlin explained in a three-minute segment about the floppy replacement project. "The system is currently working just fine, but we know that with each increasing year the risk of data degradation on the floppy disks increases and that at some point there will be a catastrophic failure."

The agency noted that its system was installed in 1998, when floppies were still in common use and, er, "computers didn't have hard drives." That doesn't exactly match reality, since hard drives were already very common at the time – here's a tale from 1998 about drives sold at the time, in sizes ranging from 5GB to 16.8GB. That's right: gigabytes! How would anyone ever fill one of those up?

For the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to adopt floppies in that year would not be the first time organizations have acquired outdated tech and just kept using it rather than enduring the expense of an upgrade.

"We were the first agency in the US to adopt this particular technology, but it was from an era that computers didn't have a hard drive, so you have to load the software from floppy disks onto the computer," SFMTA's PR Mariana Maguire argued.

And before folks start panicking, it's worth remembering that use of floppy disks is not uncommon in embedded systems. Bear in mind that the US nuclear arsenal ran off eight-inch floppies until 2019. It's the way stuff was done when these systems were built last century.

Upgrading San Francisco's public transit IT will be a lengthy and costly effort.

"This is effectively a multi-phase decade-long project that starts with pieces of Market Street subway and pieces on the surface," explained Tumlin. "Ultimately our goal is to have a single train control system for the entire rail system."

While Fog City's quaint cable car system (also run by the SFMTA) brings in the tourists, its light railway is among the best in the US – a nation that hasn't generally built extensive public rail networks, thanks to geography and lack of political will.

"We are hoping that a large component of this will come from state and federal grants. The rest of it will come from Muni's rapidly declining internal capital resources," warned Tumlin. ®

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