For 26 years, a large city has relied on floppy disks every morning so that trains know how to run

In the American city of San Francisco, public transportation has relied on floppy disks for over 20 years. At that time it was one of the most modern systems in the world. But an upgrade is sorely needed, but also very expensive.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA or San Francisco MTA) is responsible for public transportation and other areas in the city of the same name.

In an interview with abc7news, the agency said it has relied on floppy disks for its delivery system for over 20 years. The SFMTA’s train control system relies on 5-inch floppy disks every morning. But an upgrade is lengthy and expensive.

The train control system was designed to last 20 to 25 years, with each year the risk increases

Mariana Maguire of the SFMTA Train Control Project explained that the system was one of the most modern when it was first introduced.

We were the first agency in the U.S. to use this technology, but it came from a time when computers didn’t have hard drives, so you had to load the software from floppy disks onto the computer.

SFMTA Chief Jeffrey Tumlin said the system would still function properly. Nevertheless, the risk that important things could be lost increases with every year:

This is a question of risk. The system is currently working fine, but we know that with each passing year, the risk of data loss on the disks increases and that a catastrophic failure will occur at some point.

In fact, the floppy disk system was only designed to last 20 to 25 years. Tumlin said modernizing the system will take another decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

So far, no suitable partner has been found who wants to upgrade the system.
“The exact timeline for the project will be determined once we have a contractor on board,” said the SFMTA director. “It is a multi-phase, 10-year project starting with portions of the Market Street subway and portions of the surface. Ultimately, our goal is to have a single train control system for the entire rail system.”

Incidentally, San Francisco is not the only city that still relies or has relied on an antiquated system:

  • In Japan, there is a legal norm that requires the use of physical data carriers such as floppy disks. This is what Heise’s colleagues report.
  • For years, Deutsche Bahn used floppy disks for seat reservation data. Deutsche Bahn has now introduced a new, digital system.
  • More about old storage media: Many people destroy old hard drives because they believe that scrapping old hard drives will prevent valuable data from being recovered. But the destruction doesn’t stop experienced hackers from restoring your data from an HDD:

    People destroy millions of innocent old hard drives, but there is a much safer way to protect your old data