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San Francisco’s train control system still runs on floppy disks, risking a “catastrophic failure”

WTF?! Joining the list of organizations still using archaic technology is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which has a train control system still reliant on floppy disks. It’s said to have been cutting-edge tech when it was first installed – back in 1998 – but the city fears that if there isn’t an upgrade carried out soon, there will at some point be a “catastrophic failure.”

It’s somewhat ironic that in San Francisco, home of Silicon Valley, the train control system is running off floppy disks, an entry in our Once-Iconic Tech Products That Are Now a Fading Memory feature.

Mariana Maguire, SFMTA Train Control Project, told ABC7 News that the SFMTA was the first agency in the US to adopt the floppy-based automatic train control system in 1998. That was the same year that the original StarCraft was the best-selling PC game, and even by that point, CD-ROMs were making floppies obsolete.

Reporter Luz Pena shows off a 3.5-inch floppy in the video of the report, but the article mentions that “5-inch” floppy disks are used in the system. It’s probably 3.5-inch disks as 5.25-inch variants were even less likely to be part of “cutting-edge” systems in 1998.

SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin said the train management system was meant to be in place for 20 to 25 years. It is now entering its 26th year of service.

When asked about the urgency of upgrading the system, Tumlin said that although it is working fine, every year brings an increasing risk of the disks suffering data degradation. He added that at some point there will be “a catastrophic failure.”

The problem is that upgrading to a modern system will not only take around a decade, but also cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Tumlin said he hopes the majority of the money will come from state and federal grants, while the rest will come from “Muni’s rapidly declining internal capital resources.”

Floppy disks have clung to life decades after most people assumed they were long gone. It was only in 2019 when the US military dropped 8-inch floppies for SSDs in its nuclear weapons systems. We also heard that Boeing, Chuck E. Cheese, and many small businesses that couldn’t afford to upgrade were still using floppies as recently as last year.

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