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“Boat Tram” Trolley Tour June 6


June 6 is D-Day, but on the F-line that day, “D” stands for “delightful.” Market Street Railway and San Francisco City Guides are once again collaborating on a guided history tour of Market Street and The Embarcadero aboard the fabulous open-top “Boat Tram*” (Blackpool, England, Car No. 228) that offers unobstructed views of the sights and sounds of a Saturday in the City.

Join tour guides Harlan Hirschfeld from City Guides and Paul Lucas from Market Street Railway on one of our priceless “museums in motion” for their informative ride along the F-line where you will learn interesting historical facts about famous Fisherman’s Wharf, traditional North Beach, the scenic Embarcadero, colorful Ferry Plaza, the busy financial district, world famous Powell & Market, classic Civic Center, imposing Mint Hill and the lively Castro.

The tour runs from 1:30-3:30 pm, starting and ending at our San Francisco Railway Museum, 77 Steuart Street across from the Ferry Building.

Sign up today for $40 per person. (Market Street Railway members receive a 25% discount, so please consider joining us before you buy your tickets…you can get the discount on two tickets!) Seating capacity is limited, and we’ve already sold a bunch of tickets, so don’t delay.

Your ticket purchase provides the funds required to charter the streetcar from Muni, so all ticket sales must be final. All proceeds go to support Market Street Railway and City Guides in their work to keep San Francisco’s transit history alive.

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GM Conspiracy to Kill Streetcars? Not By Itself

In this 1940 shot from the SFMTA Archives, you can see automobiles jousting with streetcars for space on Market Street. This car-car clash was a big reason streetcars almost died out in the U.S.

In this 1940 shot from the SFMTA Archives, you can see automobiles jousting with streetcars for space on Market Street. This car-car clash was a big reason streetcars almost died out in the U.S.

One of the central beliefs in the heart of many U.S. railfans is that the golden age of streetcars was cruelly crushed by a 1940’s conspiracy led by General Motors and petroleum and tire companies in an illegal scheme to sell buses. The agent was a company called National City Lines.

There’s no question that National City Lines bought up dozens of privately owned transit operations around the U.S., including the Key System here in the Bay Area, and largely succeeded in converting streetcars to buses. But an excellent article in Vox by Joseph Stromberg argues persuasively that the conspirators were vultures picking at the carcass of a mode of transit that was already dead or dying in most American cities (San Francisco being, as in many things, something of an exception).

(Note to those already blowing steam out of their ears and raring to rant: no comments will be accepted on this post unless you can demonstrate in your remarks that you actually read the linked article.)

We hear the mantra of evil GM et al repeated all the time. It’s really a religion among some. But as Stromberg points out,

“The real reasons for the streetcar’s demise are much less nefarious than a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially low — but they’re fascinating in their own right, and if you’re a transit fan, they’re even more frustrating.”

Every early “public” transit system was actually privately owned, and operated to make a profit. San Francisco’s experience was typical. Many pioneering rail transit lines (initially pulled by horses, then cables, then powered by overhead wires) were started by entrepreneurs. Soon, though, they were consolidated by bigger players — in San Francisco’s case, initially by the owners of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad.

These rail transit lines operated under franchises from the cities that hosted them. In getting the rights to put tracks into public streets and a monopoly on operating routes, they agreed to maintain the street areas around the tracks and have fares regulated. In practicality, city after city forced private operators to keep the fare at five cents for decades, regardless of inflation.

Stromberg’s analysis doesn’t mention it, but the unchanging nickel fare forced private operators to keep cutting maintenance, which meant the streetcars, track, and overhead got increasingly decrepit. Many streetcar companies went bankrupt well before National City Lines came on the scene. Others got a boost in revenue during World War II when rationing forced automobile drivers back to transit, but this only prolonged those streetcars’ life, rather than curing the underlying ills.

Oh, those automobiles. What most conspiracy theorists choose to ignore is that the rise of the middle class and the power of mass production made automobiles affordable to more families every year. Many began to choose their cars instead of streetcars for many trips, eroding transit company revenues and increasing congestion on the streets the streetcars used. Later, many moved to new suburbs beyond the streetcar’s reach and drove their cars to work, again dueling with streetcars for street space. (We document this in our current exhibit, “Cars vs. Cars”, at our San Francisco Railway Museum.

Stromberg also gives too little attention to the real issue of labor costs. Most cities had increasingly powerful transit unions, which resisted reducing streetcar crews from two operators to one. This limited the spread of the comfortable, modern PCC streetcar, which industry leaders designed in the 1930s with the intent that it would be a single operator car. Transit companies that couldn’t win government approval to reduce crew size had no incentive to buy PCCs. Indeed, our namesake, Muni’s private competitor Market Street Railway Company won the right to run single-operator streetcars in the 1930s and drew up plans for PCC-line streamliners, but had the courts reverse that right and abandoned their streamliner dreams. (Muni PCC No. 1011 is painted in tribute to what might have been, if…)

Muni bought five PCC-like streetcars in 1939, but it was all they could afford, and they had to use two-operator crews to run them.  SFMTA Archives.

Muni bought five PCC-like streetcars in 1939, but it was all they could afford, and they had to use two-operator crews to run them. SFMTA Archives.

Even America’s first urban transit system that was government-owned — Muni — felt the mix of economic pressures Stromberg describes. After acquiring the assets of the old Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni proceeded to do just what National City Lines did: convert most of its streetcar lines to buses, as quickly as they could. Equipment and track was worn out, increased automobile traffic was slowing streetcar service, and voters wouldn’t approve single-operator streetcars.

This isn’t news. We wrote about this at length in our member newsletter, Inside Track, in 2002 and later, posted the piece here, so no need to plow all that ground again. But because the over-simplified conspiracy trope keeps popping up, we think it’s important to remind people that it took more than a few corporations to almost kill the streetcar.

Speaking of reminders, we depend on YOU to help us keep today’s historic streetcar and cable car operations alive and vibrant through our advocacy and support programs. Please consider joining or contributing to Market Street Railway.  Thanks.



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Information NOT Gladly Given?

Muni unveiled sleek new buses yesterday, both motor coaches and trolley coaches. Their press release was full of positive stuff, and rightly so. Transit chief John Haley deserves credit for pulling strings to get new vehicles ordered and here much faster than used to be the case.

But, as the Chronicle story pointed out, there’s something a little historic missing from the new vehicles:

“some of the familiar signs, replaced mostly with visual images. That includes the classic Muni message: ‘Information Gladly Given But Safety Requires Avoiding Unnecessary Conversation.’ Haley said it’s part of a campaign to eradicate negative and threatening messaging from buses.’ That’s not the environment we want to create,’ he said.”

InfoTeeBlackWell, since our non-profit’s mission is “Preserving Historic Transit in San Francisco,” we figure we’ve got to do something. So we’re not only going to continue to offer our tee shirt bearing that ironic (and now, iconic as well) slogan in the traditional gray, we’ve now added stylish black. (Scroll down the linked webpage to reach the shirt.) Gray or black, starting at $16.95 (members get 10% off!)

There’s no better conversation starter than this shirt, and as Muni excises the slogan from its new vehicles, it’s even more important to own one, to keep the slogan alive!

As mentioned, you can get this great shirt with its endangered slogan online, or at our San Francisco Railway Museum, where we’re rolling out a new shirt featuring a Milan tram as well! (That’ll hit our online store in a few days.)

When our friend Todd Lappin (the guiding light behind the fabulous Bernalwood blog) suggested this shirt to us, he described the slogan as “simultaneously friendly and forbidding, inviting yet indifferent, personable yet coldly professional.”  Sums it up pretty well.

Still, it’s not as cheerless as the slogan it replaced: “Do Not Talk To Operator.”

But probably the all-time Muni passenger warning sign was this one, that used to be on the step-down-to-open rear doors of Muni buses in the 1950s and 1960s.

P1020257Or, “Don’t squish your kids.”  Now that’s threatening!





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Super Bowl Party Kicks Out F-Line Streetcars

Super Bowl Party on lower Market

The F-line’s historic streetcars will be kicked out of Downtown for at least eight days, probably longer, early next year. Lower Market Street and Ferry Plaza are being taken over by a massive party for Super Bowl 50, the NFL Championship game being played 50 miles away in Santa Clara on February 7.

Still, San Francisco is the official “host city,” and the host committee is touting the economic benefits of one of America’s most hyped — and most watched — sporting events.  The plans, just released, call for closing Market Street east of Beale from January 30 through game day, taking over the plazas around the Ferry Building as well (including the plaza adjoining our San Francisco Railway Museum).

According to an article on the Chronicle’s web site, “The city is expected to add more public transportation to the area and reroute the historic F-line streetcars…”  However, as reporters for the paper should know, there is no way to “reroute” streetcars unless there are tracks for them, and, as the rendering above from the Super Bowl Host Committee shows, the entirety of Market Street is closed to all vehicles, with the tracks blocked by temporary structures in places.

While Muni has not yet announced its plans to handle the Market Street closure, the party would – at a minimum – restrict the F-line streetcars to operating from 11th Street west to Castro during the time lower Market is closed, which could stretch as long as ten days when set up and break down times are added, since there is no place closer than that on Market to turn the streetcars around. Buses would presumably substitute for at least that portion of the F-line, either using Mission Street to get around the parade or turning back at Beale, as the Market Street trolley coach lines likely will.

It’s not clear whether the streetcar tracks on The Embarcadero through Ferry Plaza would remain open. If so, streetcar shuttles could operate between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building. If not, it’s possible the entire F-line would be operated with buses, rerouted off lower Market, for this extended period.

We’ll report more developments as we learn of them.



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Muni Heritage Weekend September 26-27

P1060043Muni Heritage Weekend for 2015 has been officially scheduled on Saturday-Sunday, September 26-27.

The fourth edition of the popular event will again feature vintage streetcars, a special cable car, and vintage streetcars not often seen on the street, all available for the public to ride. Specifics are still being worked out, but it will be similar to the 2014 event, in terms of the vehicles involved. Working with Muni’s great shop forces, we’re hoping to introduce at least one newly restored vehicle to the operation.

If you’re planning to travel from a distance, consider coming early, because we’re working to set up special events for our members, including a possible charter, on Thursday, September 24. We’ll have details soon.

In any event, late September is usually the best weather period of the year in San Francisco, and with school back in session, the summer visitor crush has passed. So if you’re planning a trip here for Heritage Weekend this year, stretch it out and enjoy many more wonders of the City by the Bay, and Northern California beyond.

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Sign Up For Our April Trolley Tours

Brussels/Zurich tram

Tram No. 737, from Brussels (1952) painted in tribute to San Francisco’s sister city, Zurich, Switzerland

Trolley Tours are back in 2015!  We’ve scheduled our first three, and will be announcing more in the months to come.

These private charters, arranged by Market Street Railway, give you the chance to ride vintage streetcars not often seen in regular service and along streetcar routes that the vintage cars only follow for events like these.

All the details are here, if you just want to cut to the chase.

Our first excursion, on April 12, brings out Muni’s European PCC, the stylish Belgian adaptation of the U.S. streetcar design seen on the F-line. With exterior livery touting Zurich, San Francisco’s sister city, but interior signs in French and Flemish heralding the city where it actually ran, Brussels, it’s a rolling example of streetcar schizophrenia.  It will run from our San Francisco Railway Museum out the F and J lines to Balboa Park and back.

Boat tram No. 228 on a charter

Boat tram No. 228 on a charter

Our second Trolley Tour is especially for grandparents and grandchildren, on the delightful 1934 boat tram from Blackpool, England.  What better way to delight the little ones than an open air ride along the waterfront, with a guided tour included.

Car No.1 on 17th Street

Car No.1 on 17th Street

Then, on April 26, we’ll have our first “Night Train” event, an evening excursion on beautifully restored 1912 Car No. 1, with beverages and a live band!

Again, for more information and to sign up, click here!

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Geary Car House, with Friends

Geary Carhouse Cars 1 1006Muni’s first streetcar storage and maintenance facility was the Geary Car House, at Geary Blvd. and Presidio Avenue. It opened with Muni’s first lines (the A and B) in 1912 and stopped being a streetcar facility after the Geary lines converted to buses at the end of 1956.  Muni built its Presidio Division bus facility behind this carbarn at the end of the 1940s. Its offices sat above the streetcar storage tracks until the early 21st century.

We saw this shot on eBay but were not successful in getting the original. Still, it’s worth sharing because of the “friends” we found in the photo.

Geary Carhouse Cars 1 1006 copy

That’s double-end PCC No. 1006 on the left in the closeup, with a blank route sign and “Car House” as its destination. Chances are it had come in from the N-Judah, where the double-enders often ran in their early years. Next to it is Car No. 15, signed for the F-Stockton line, and then, lo and behold, Car No. 1, signed for the C-Geary-California line, which it often served in its waning days. Its destination sign, though, shows “Plymouth,” the end of the M-Ocean View line. That could easily have been a “barn rat,” a young railfan of the day, playing around. The ad on the end of one of the streetcars suggests the date is 1951. It’s certainly not later than that because the F-Stockton became the 30-Stockton bus at the end of 1951, and it’s not earlier than 1948 because that’s when No. 1006 joined the fleet.

We were delighted to see this photo, featuring two streetcar friends that are still with us, thanks to Muni’s commitment to preservation (with support from Market Street Railway).

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Sunday Streets on The Embarcadero March 8

New Orleans "Streetcar Named Desire" No. 152 (built 1924) operates in demonstration E-Embarcadero service along with PCC No. 1007 during the 2008 Sunday Streets event.

New Orleans “Streetcar Named Desire” No. 952 (built 1923) runs in trial E-Embarcadero service along with PCC No. 1007 during 2008’s Sunday Streets event.

The weather is scary-summery, leading us to wring our hands over the worsening drought. But there’s an upside: a beautiful day expected Sunday for the first Sunday Streets event of the season, March 8 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (Daylight Savings Time!) on The Embarcadero between Third Street and Pier 39. Details here.

This is the now-established event where automobiles are detoured, opening the northbound roadway for bicyclists, tricyclists, unicyclists, skateboarders, and users of virtually any other self-powered vehicle.  Including feet.

But the F-line streetcars will be operating, so it’s a great opportunity to come down and enjoy a ride as part of the day.  (Remember, though, the F-line streetcars cannot accommodate bikes on board.)

Market Street Railway sincerely wishes Muni could put out some of the unique streetcars, like Muni Car 1 and the Boat Tram, for the event, but Muni reports a continuing shortage of trained operators they’ve been trying to address for a couple of years now.  (We’re hoping that something positive in that regard will develop at the last minute, but it’s not likely.)  We’ll have an article about this frustrating training situation in the next issue of our member newsletter, Inside Track, due out in early April.

While you’re on the waterfront, stop into our San Francisco Railway Museum across from the Ferry Building to see our exhibit, “Fair, Please,” on how Muni came of age in order to serve the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The Examiner just carried a long article on Muni’s 1915 fair service with lots of quotes from us. Unfortunately, though, the article got mixed up about the historic streetcar extension to Fort Mason. As much as we might wish it to be true, the streetcar extension through the historic 1914 rail tunnel (built in part to bring materials to the Exposition site) will not be hosting streetcars this summer.

The reporter apparently confused the startup of weekend service on the E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line between Fisherman’s Wharf and Caltrain, still slated by Muni for July of this year, with the future extension to Fort Mason, for which funding is still being sought. And the headline writer erroneously called the Fair service the “birthing of Muni,” when it was more a case of Muni going from toddler to teenager in the course of a couple of growth-spurt years. But it was still a good piece, and we recommend it.

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1915 Fair Celebration

PH 0443, Van Ness Ave, c.1915 copy

On February 20, 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened. On that opening day, tens of thousands of San Franciscans and visitors paraded north along Van Ness Avenue to reach the fairgrounds at Harbor View (now the Marina District). Tens of thousands more rode streetcars, such as No. 11 (identical to preserved Muni No. 1) shown here on Van Ness in the vicinity of Vallejo Street.

On Saturday, February 21, 2015, you’re all invited to a community celebration marking the fair’s centennial, under the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts (the only surviving structure from the Fair), Lyon and Francisco Streets, from 12 Noon to 5 p.m..  Buffalo Bill Cody, Charlie Chaplin, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and other famous 1915 fair attendees will be there (at least in spirit, and through impersonators). There’ll be dancing, music and plenty of historic displays, including ours. All the details are here.

This weekend is also a great time to visit our San Francisco Railway Museum to see our free exhibit, “Fair, Please,” telling the story of how this monumental exposition helped the young Municipal Railway come of age. If you can’t make it to the museum this weekend, not to worry. The exhibit will run through November, just like the fair did a century ago.

You can also read our story about how Muni served the fair. It’s a reprint from our exclusive quarterly member newsletter, Inside Track, filled with inside information, unique stories and rare photos, most of which we don’t share online. Join us today and we’ll send you the last four issues of this award-winning glossy newsletter.

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Market Street Gets a Closeup

GAR Arch on Market 1886

Peter Hartlaub is one of the best things about the Chronicle today. He mines the newspaper’s archives, finding some real photographic gems along with contemporary news coverage. Then he puts them into context, sometimes in the newspaper itself but more often on his blog on

Today, his article talks about Market Street’s history. It’s a good read and we recommend it.  You should also look at his blog post from a few days ago, that has lots of additional photos of Market Street in the 1800s, including the one at the top of this post. That’s a temporary “triumphal arch” over Market Street’s relatively new cable car tracks in 1886, celebrating the gathering of the Grand Army of the Republic (Civil War veterans who fought for the Union).

Peter’s pieces dovetail nicely with the talk MSR’s Rick Laubscher will be giving this coming Thursday night, February 19, at the Mechanic’s Institute.  It’s free for Market Street Railway members. Details here.  Hope to see lots of you on Thursday.

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