In Tech Mecca, the Trains Run on Floppy Disks

San Francisco's train system needs a costly reboot
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 21, 2024 3:35 PM CDT
In Tech Mecca, the Trains Run on Floppy Disks
Light-rail cars at a maintenance facility in San Francisco.   (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Despite its location in the nation's hub of cutting-edge tech, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) relies on an aging piece of tech to keep its trains moving. While the 5 1/4-inch floppy disks used to run Muni Metro's Automatic Train Control System were innovative back when they were installed in 1998, they have not only outlived their expected lifespan of 25 years, they will continue to be in use until at least 2029 as the transit agency gets a 21st-century upgrade in place, reports ABC 7.

  • Why the slowdown? Replacing the floppy disk system isn't a simple reboot, explains Ars Technica. SFMTA must overhaul the entire train-control system it's connected to, including a loop cable that "has less bandwidth than an old AOL dial-up modem," says spokesperson Michael Roccaforte.
  • Paying for the new system: There are also budgetary issues for the project, which will run "hundreds of millions." While ridership is up year-over-year, SFMTA says it hasn't quite rebounded from the pandemic, with 433,000 weekday riders, about 68% of 2019. They hope to make up the difference through state and federal grants.
  • How dire is this situation? "It's a question of risk," director of transportation Jeffrey Tumlin tells ABC7. "The system is currently working just fine but we know that with each increasing year risk of data degradation on the floppy disks increases and that at some point there will be a catastrophic failure."
  • Who else is using floppy disks? The floppy disk reached technical obsolescence in 2011, writes, but demand from the embroidery, dye, tool, and airline industries keeps one small California company,, in business. It sells about 500 disks per day.
(More technology stories.)

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