Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to get this quarterly magazine with its stories of San Francisco transit history as an exclusive member benefit.)

by Art Curtis     

Art Curtis on his first day as a Muni motorman, 1961, at what turned out to be his favorite terminal, City College on the K-Ingleside line. MSR Archive

 Stand on Market Street today and watch the streetcars go by.  You’ll notice they pretty much stay in the same order all day.  You might see the Boston PCC, then the yellow Milan tram, then the Harvey Milk car (Muni 1051).  Back when I was operating streetcars on Market in the 1960s though, it was a much different story.

Market Street, 1967. Wonder whether the motorman of J-line PCC 1031 was Art’s nemisis, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein? MSR Archive

They were all streamliner PCCs then, of course, all painted green and cream, so that casual onlookers couldn’t tell if the order of the cars changed.  But the order of the cars made a big difference to many of us operators – the difference between a good day and a bad day.

Here’s why.  Today, it’s just the F-line on Market, but back then all five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, shared those Market Street tracks.  Those of us who were “runners” – who liked to take advantage of the PCCs fast acceleration and rapid braking to keep to our schedule – did our best to be sure we had room to run.

Let me give you an example.  I once worked a run [a day’s worth of trips] named 27-K, which meant it was run number 27 primarily routed on the K-Ingleside line.  I picked up the car from its previous operator every day at 4:47 p.m. at the West Portal of the old Twin Peaks Tunnel. Usually, though, the operator was six to eight minutes late.  As a runner that just heightened my enjoyment of the day’s work. 

One of Art’s favored “Baby Ten” PCCs rolling out Ocean Avenue at Cedro in Ingleside Terraces, bound for City College. If Art Curtis were the motorman, he’d be hustling to make up time. Mike Sheridan photo, MSR Archive

 You see, that run was scheduled to start its next trip, from the old Phelan Loop at City College, at 5:06 p.m., less than 20 minutes after I was scheduled to get the car at West Portal.  It was a daily, but totally rewarding challenge to get the heavy load of students at that hour on board at the terminal and make it back to West Portal within the bare ten minutes allowed by the schedule (laughably short compared to today’s schedules).

PCC 1027 at the K-line’s City College terminal. The car will navigate a very tight loop to get back to Ocean Avenue. Art would have the wheels squealing to beat his slow L-line compatriot, Joe Shook, to West Portal. MSR Archive

 Achieving that reward was especially important during one particular sign-up, because if I got to West Portal late, my follower on the L-line would cut me out, get ahead of me through the tunnel and down Market.  That motorman was the infamously slow Joe Shook, who was already a couple of minutes late when he reached West Portal.  I would often make a “Hollywood Stop” at West Portal & Ulloa, rolling through the inbound point-on switch ringing my gong and waving at Joe to stop and let me go ahead of him.

If I got in place ahead of Joe, I still had to hot foot it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel and down to Church Street on Market to make sure I got in place ahead of my J-line follower, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein, who always liked to run a couple of minutes ahead of schedule.  The final challenge on this first trip on 27-K was to get up the hill to Duboce and make sure I got in place ahead of my “N” follower, whose name I can’t remember – but I do remember that just like the other two, he was so, so slow!!  If I could get ahead of them, I could make up any lost time.  Nothing better for a runner like me to start down the hill from Duboce and see my leader somewhere down around Fourth or Third Street. Then I could really move!! It made no difference if we had a “swinging load” of passengers or not – just as long as we could move!

Market Street east of Duboce, with the double-deck Central Freeway looming over Octavia Street. Despite the freeway, Art had a clear view inbound well past Van Ness. MSR Archive

But if any of these guys got in front of me, I knew that when I finally got back to West Portal outbound, I’d be really late. That would force the inspector, Bill Veach (whom I had “helped” at West Portal as a young railfan before I was hired), to set up a car trade for me. I usually inherited a “good” car (which to me meant either a double-ended “Torpedo” or a “Baby Ten,” not an ex-St. Louis 1100) when I began my run. But if I was late on the first return trip from East Bay Terminal, I’d be stuck for the rest of the night with whatever car Bill could get another motorman to trade at West Portal. Though he did always try to get me a Baby Ten or a Torpedo if he could, it all depended on which motormen were willing to make the car trades and pull-in late.  If he couldn’t make a trade, I told him to just let me run and I’ll get back on time!

Inspector Bill Veach, right, checks on PCC 1145 at West Portal. If Art were in that 1100, he’d be begging Veach for a trade for a Baby Ten or Torpedo. By the way, note the extra black fleet number over the front door. That was Art’s idea, as an inspector, to make it easier to pick out individual cars during BART construction. Only a few cars ever got this treatment, though. MSR Archive

This may sound trivial to some readers today, but let me tell you, having a good car to run, and room to run it, made all the difference between a frustrating day at work and a satisfying one – and of course it made things better for passengers, too, since I knew how to keep my car on schedule if no one got in front of me to slow me down!!

PCC 1025 at East Bay Terminal, completing another run, a bit before Art’s time at Muni (1955). Note the W-P neon sign on Mission Street, the headquarters of Western Pacific Railroad. The feather promotes their “Feather River Route” through the Sierra Nevada. Phillip Scherer photo, MSR Archive

Art Curtis’ family has generously asked that donations in his memory can be made to Market Street Railway. If you’re so inclined, click here, and put Art’s name in the honoree box near the bottom of the donation page. We’ll use those donations for something special to honor him.

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Pride 1983

Like everyone in San Francisco, we miss the LGBTQ Pride Parade up Market Street this year. At least we can share a look back, framed with pleasure.

During the first year of the Trolley Festivals, 1983, we got the idea of asking if streetcars could be included in the parade. Yes, indeed came the answer. So the Blackpool boat tram and Muni Car 1 took their place in line and tooled up Market Street. The choice of destination for the boat tram’s roll signs (blinds, to the English) was obvious. People loved it!

Hmmm, that gives us an idea for next year…

Happy Pride Weekend everyone!

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Art Curtis, 1940-2020

Art Curtis shares a piece of memorabilia with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Ed Lee at the celebration of Muni’s centennial at our San Francisco Railway Museum, April 28, 2012.

Art Curtis passed away on June 20, 2020 at 11:11am. He fought a coura- geous fight with brain cancer, diagnosed in 2018. Art was given three months to live, but willed himself to reach his 80th birthday, and did on June 8! His niece, Kathleen Morelock, informed Art’s many friends of his passing, and shared a dream Art’s sister Kathie had the night before: “Uncle Art came to the bedroom door…took her hand, and they flew together throughout our beautiful city of San Francisco where we all grew up, visiting all the places he loved.”

Market Street Railway’s Corporate Secretary and member of our Board of Directors for almost 20 years, Art was a legend for his 37-career at Muni, culminating as Chief Inspector up to his retirement in 1998. Here is a wonderful detailed obituary, recounting his many and varied interests and life experiences. We are honored that Art selected Market Street Railway as a charity where well-wishers can send donations. We will recognize every giver here.

We also published a tribute to Art in our quarterly magazine for members, Inside Track, at the printer now and in the mail in about 10 days. In the next two weeks, we will be posting a couple of Art’s great stories that he shared with our members in past issues of Inside Track. So please check back.

Services for Art have been deferred until it is safe to gather. It is a testament to Art’s determination that he could set – and achieve – what doctors thought was an unrealistic goal of reaching his 80th birthday. As Muni historic streetcar trainer Robert Parks noted, “He was too much of a professional to be late for his final pull-in. Two bells, Chief.” 

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What’s New is Old

48-Ingleside-Taraval bus that replaced night and weekend K and L streetcar service in the early 1950s. MSR Archive

All Muni rail service has been halted since March with selected replacement by buses. Metro lines are now slated to reopen in mid-August, though no date has yet been set for resumption of historic streetcar and cable car service.

But Muni Metro will be different when it returns, at least at first. In a bold step, Jeff Tumlin, boss of Muni’s parent SFMTA, and Muni head Julie Kirschbaum are re-imagining Muni Metro for the first time since it opened in the early 1980s. This post on the SFMTA website has all the details, so we won’t recount them here, though we are including the post’s map below.

Proposed Muni Metro service starting mid-August. SFMTA graphic

We’re a historic transit site, so we’ll focus on the history, starting with the origins of Muni Metro. Muni was essentially gifted the Market Street Subway as part of the 1962 bond issue that built BART, and considered various ways to get the most value out of it. One idea given serious consideration in the 1960s was to buy high-platform subway cars, extend the M line under West Portal and the N in a subway to 19th and Irving, and make the J, K, and L buses. But voters turned down a Muni bond issue to pay for that, and many J, K, L and Outer Sunset N riders protested at giving up their one-seat rides downtown. So, pushed by BART to make up its mind, Muni essentially left routings as they were, cramming all five surface streetcar lines into the subway using new LRVs, and then intending to scrap surface streetcar service on Market (different story, covered here).

But feeding five surface rail lines at the mercy of mixed street traffic smoothly into a subway operation has consistently proved vexing. Delays in the subway have been common the entire 40 years it’s been open, delays that are often protracted, frustrating and sometimes enraging riders. Several visions to improve operations have put forward over the years by outsiders, including this one that we share as information only. All these visions have faced the same problem: strong neighborhood opposition to having to transfer to use the subway.

Boeing LRV on the M line at West Portal Station, 1990s. MSR Archive

By saying it’s an interim move, some observers note that what Tumlin and Kirschbaum are following is the old political axiom, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”; that is, try out changes now that you’d be unlikely to get through the political process in normal times. And Tumlin is on the record as saying he wants to rebuild Muni operations with a fresh eye, for tomorrow’s needs.

We must note, though, that the roots of this change are not new; they go back well before the subway existed, at least as far as the late 1940s. The K, L, and M lines we know today are essentially the same as when created a century ago. Then, it was politics and financial considerations that set out their routes. The K, for example, originally only went to St. Francis Circle. just five blocks from the West Portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. To extend it farther, the city cut a deal with rival United Railroads to share the track of URR’s 12-line along Ocean Avenue. But the K route looks weird on a map, like the line is making a U-turn. The original 1918 rationale seems to have been that the K could attract riders right away because the Ingleside was already largely built-up, while it would take many years for the L and M, much of whose routes went through vacant land to stimulate housing and thus ridership. The same could be said for the outer end of the N-Judah, opened through the new Sunset Tunnel in 1928. (Here’s the full history of streetcars in the Sunset.)

After World War II, San Francisco’s streetcar infrastructure — the tracks, overhead, and cars themselves, were worn out. Additionally, Muni was unable to win approval from voters to allow a single operator to run a streetcar. They still required crews of two, and labor costs were driving Muni from breaking even to losing money. That was a primary factor in converting two dozen streetcar lines to single-operator buses between 1947 and 1951. At that time, Muni considered a similar core rail service using just the M and N lines in their tunnels and on Market Street, with feeder buses to connect. In fact, they went so far as to start a bus line in January 1951 called the 48-Ingleside-Taraval (top photo) to replace K and L streetcars on the outer portions of those lines nights, weekends, and holidays. K and L riders complained of course, and streetcars were restored 16 months later.

The new interim plan for Metro service includes that same K/L routing, using LRVs on the surface only. Riders will have to transfer at West Portal to either the M, which will continue to operate its full route, or S-Shuttle service which will run in the subway only between West Portal and Embarcadero Station.

Boeing LRV turning from the K onto the L line at West Portal in the early 1980s. This is the same turn the K/L surface route will make when rail service resumes in August. MSR Archive

Prospective changes to the J-Church line also have a faint echo in the past. As one of the lesser-ridden Muni rail lines (then as well as now), Muni came close to replacing J-line streetcars with trolley buses (numbered 46-Church) around 1950, forsaking the scenic right of way through Dolores Park and over Dolores Heights with a straight trolley bus shot up Church, too steep for streetcars. It might well have happened but Muni ran out of money for new trolley buses and besides the neighbors on Church fought hard for their streetcars.

The new plan calls for running LRVs on the J from Balboa Park to Market Street only, transferring passengers there to the subway (or, when it starts back up) to the F-line. Intriguingly, shortly after the F-line opened in 1995, its PCCs were routed out Church Street at night for several weeks to provide J-line service while the subway was closed for work. (LRVs cannot currently use Market Street, since the overhead won’t work with pantographs, though in the longer term that could be changed.)

PCC 1015, newly returned from restoration, testing on the J-line at 21st Street earlier this year. Could this become real? Jeremy Whiteman photo for the 2021 MSR Calendar.

Officially of course, the re-start of Metro service with the routings shown on the map is interim. At the very least, the opening of the long-delayed Central Subway, not scheduled for the end of 2021, will take the T-line out of the Market Street Subway. And it’s possible, if riders see a net reduction in trip times, even with a transfer, that at least some of these interim changes could stick.

There are a lot of moving pieces in play here, not least of which is the severe budget strain governments will face in the wake of the pandemic. Who knows? Maybe if Muni is unable to fund the full complement of Siemens LRVs, the J-line could be run with PCCs. More than in a long time, anything’s possible now. And we at Market Street Railway are keeping an open mind about everything.

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When politics & dirty tricks savaged our cable cars

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 16, 1954, several hundred San Franciscans gathered at California and Hyde Streets. They weren’t late-night shopping at Trader Joe’s, but rather were protesting what was then happening to the previous occupants of that property–cable cars. Well after midnight, O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde car No. 51 crested Russian Hill and approached the old carbarn and powerhouse, headed for history. The car, built in 1906 (and still in service today on California Street), was… — Read More

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