San Francisco’s Train System is Still Running on Floppy Disks

San Francisco light rail uses floppy disks

In 1998, San Francisco installed the latest cutting-edge technology to run the train network: floppy disks. A quarter of a century later and the city’s transportation agency is still using the same system.

People under the age of 30 might not know what a floppy disk is; an archaic way of storing data (think USB stick). But the workers at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) sure do as they are still using obsolete tech to automate the movement of light rail vehicles.

“We were the first agency in the U.S. to adopt this particular technology but it was from an era when computers didn’t have a hard drive so you have to load the software from floppy disks onto the computer,” Mariana Maguire, SFMTA Train Control Project, tells ABC 7.

“It’s like if you lose your memory overnight, and every morning, somebody has to tell you hey ‘this is who you are and what your purpose is what you have to do today,'” adds Maguire.

The SMFTA uses five-inch floppy disks to automatically control trains inside the subway. “With each increasing year risk of data degradation on the floppy disks increases and that at some point there will be a catastrophic failure,” says SMFTA director Jeffrey Tumlin.

The pre-millenium apparatus was designed to last 20 to 25 years so replacing the disks is a pressing matter. Katie Guillen, an SFMTA passenger, tells ABC 7 “I thought we were moving on to AI. So why are we doing floppy disk.”

The new system will hopefully improve the reliability of train control and the team will be able to track the movements of trains far more easily. However, the upgrade will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the project is yet to be finalized.

“We are hoping that a large component of this will come from state and federal grants. The rest of it will come from the SMFTA’s rapidly declining internal capital resources,” adds Tumlin.

Floppy Disk Nostalgia

It’s not just computers that used to take floppy disks, cameras also used to write data on them including the classic Sony Mavica FD7. Last year, a Formula 1 racing fan attending the Miami Grand Prix was told at the gate that he couldn’t bring in his mirrorless camera, so he came up with an unusual alternate plan: he instead decided to shoot the race with a floppy disk camera made in 2000.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.