E-line Problem Discourages Riders

A technical problem with a switch near the southern E-line terminal has forced certain streetcars to skip the final stop at Caltrain, discouraging some riders from using the service.

As it was explained to us by Muni management, two of the seven double-end PCC streetcars assigned to the E-line have problems reversing at the Sixth and King Streets terminal because of a fault in a switch. The other five PCCs are able to bypass the problem by cutting power and coasting through the switch, but Cars 1009 (above, photo by Paul Lucas) and 1015 (below) do not coast freely enough to reliably clear the switch. It is a very odd problem, like nothing we’ve heard before. Muni management claims they are working to diagnose the problem with the switch and fix it.

In the meantime, Muni maintenance has pulled out all the stops to keep those two cars off the E-line as much as they can, but it’s not always possible. Yesterday (February 1), both 1009 and 1015 were on the line, with blank destination signs when heading southbound, and cards in the windshield stating their final destination was the ballpark stop at Second and King Streets. The cars then turn left at Fourth Street onto the T-line and reverse at the crossover on Channel Street, across the Fourth Street Bridge (below).

What this means is that riders waiting for a Wharf-bound E-line car at the Caltrain stop face a double headway when these cars are in service, since they can’t make the Caltrain stop. Given the problems Muni has had keeping regular headways on the E-line anyway, this can mean a wait of up to an hour between Wharf-bound E-line trains for riders. Muni has put up signs at the Caltrain E-line stop alerting riders to this problem and suggesting they walk (or take an N-Judah) two blocks east to the Second and King stop instead.

Market Street Railway has strongly recommended that Muni address this problem by assigning double-end vintage cars to the E-line to provide steady, reliable service to all stops. Melbourne 496, New Orleans 952 (shown below in 2008), and Muni cars No. 1 and 130, all on the active roster, have all used the Sixth and King terminal during earlier E-line demonstration service without incident.

Muni, however, has responded to our recommendation by saying that because of its continuing shortage of qualified streetcar operators — a problem that has gone on for well over a year now — it is unable to supply the second crew member (a conductor) required on those particular streetcars. (Substituting buses for streetcars on the E-line is not an option because the right-of-way south of the Ferry Building is paved in a way that is rougher than the F-line right-of-way north of the Ferry Building, making bus operation unfeasible.)

While we appreciate that Muni didn’t cancel these E-line runs altogether, this erratic service pattern on the E-line discourages the growth of ridership, especially among residents along the line looking for a reliable service. We will keep you up to date on this problem.

  • Would it help if these cars had pantographs?

    • No. The overhead is compatible.

      • crazyvag

        The article never says whether switch issue is at the track or with the overhead wire, but after reading the comments, it sounds like it’s the wire. In which case, yes, a pantograph wouldn’t have that issue.

  • Kieran

    That’s a very weird problem I hope gets fixed soon..Also, I’m hoping that by the summer, there’ll be enough trained streetcar operators so that cars such as 952, 496, 1 and 130 can finally be operated on the E line when needed.

    I was looking at the streetcar status page and read that 916 is finally getting its wheels fixed, so hopefully later this year 916 can be in regular E line service.

    Lastly I hope Muni finally extends the E line down to Muni Metro East sooner than later as well. From what I understand it mostly involves lengthening the already present low platforms(along with adding wheelchair ramps) on the 5 3rd st stops between Mission Rock & 23rd st stops. The only dilemma I see is how will low platforms fit at the T line Caltrain stop on 4th st without bottlenecking the short block of 4th between King & Berry sts?

  • Mitleser

    Sorry, I don’t get it…
    Maybe it’s because I’m German, but I know how to drive over a switch every day. 😉
    What does it mean, that the cars have trouble with the switch, while going over it?
    I have never heard about a switch interfering with cars that way, does the switch have any electronic features inside that brings a car to a stop while coasting over it?
    Please help me out. Thankyou.

  • davistrain

    I would wonder if Muni has reached out to any retired techs who might be more familiar with PCC control systems. Maybe someone at Orange Empire or Seashore would have some useful insight.

  • Paul Tominac

    As part of my maintaining dual qualification of F and Metro lines, I drove 1009 on the E Line, Christmas Day, and experienced this problem at that switch. Thing is, It wasn’t every time. 6 trips a day, across the outbound switch leaving the CalTrain terminal (but actually further back, as one finishes the crossover, to get on the proper track). I think I dewired twice, passed four times successfully. Three months earlier I had 1008, and I think I also dewired at that switch, at least once. I know that once it happened, on my second trip outbound, I was looking for it, and thus would think that speed would be a factor. 3mph is the Old Muni rule book; the emerging one prescribes 5mph.

    Given that SUV scale strollers, homeless people with cargo, and pretty much anyone else can demand the manually placed wheelchair ramp on the E and F lines, stopping to fix your poles here seems like a minor consideration for an operator, especially if controlling one’s speed can prevent the mishap; but perhaps Muni is concerned with unnecessary wear and tear on the overhead, a break in which would not only incommode the heavily trafficked N, but by doing so (with a switchback at Channel) also disrupt the K/T.

    And all that for two, old, pole-powered cars who have difficulty keeping it up, and require a special touch.

    • Mitleser

      Okay, thankyou. Now I’ve got it, the cars did dewire for some (yet) unknown reasons. I didn’t consider that possibility, I thought the cars got physically stuck on the switch, which seemed unbelieveable to me.

    • davistrain

      I would presume that the first two trouble shooting steps would be replacing the trolley pole shoes, and adjusting the tension of the trolley base springs. We should also bear in mind that while the cars change ends at Caltrain, they don’t change ends at Fisherman’s wharf, so if the dewirements only happen when the “A” or “B” end is leading, that might be a clue. Most likely these possibilities were explored long ago, but it doesn’t hurt to cover all the bases.

      • Paul Tominac

        Come on now… I can assure you that Muni’s PCC shop went over those ideas long ago. People want to assist Muni’s image as incompetent any way they can, but the mechanics I’ve encountered in every aspect of my career at Muni—buses, “F” and Metro, have all been first rate—some more than others, like the operators ourselves and any other employee, anywhere; but getting the cars working well is their job and they do a heck of a job at it, if there’s a problem with their work it’s that they’re overwhelmed and under funded, which is the same song every transit agency sings, and none of the other ones are running 19th and 20th century museum pieces in regular daily revenue service, in top notch museum collection quality.

        • davistrain

          I have no doubt that the Muni personnel know what they are doing, but every now and then an item may be overlooked. One of my fellow historic railway fans was in Hollywood many years ago, and stopped to watch a DWP crew working on the overhead lines. He saw something that didn;t look right,and brought it to the attention of the foreman, who said, something like, “Good grief! We missed that. Thanks,buddy.:So I’m sure they’ve checked all the obvious possibilities, and I wish them well on solving this problem. As any tech will tell you intermittent troubles are the worst kind.