When will the cable cars and streetcars return?

The short answer is: we don’t know; it’s up to the virus and what we all do together to shorten its grip on our society. But Muni can be ready for that day, and we’re encouraging them to do so.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported the other day that cable car operations would likely not resume “until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available”, which health experts think could likely take a least a year, and possibly much longer, to create, produce, and adequately distribute. The article quoted SFMTA head Jeff Tumlin as saying, “The cable cars require the operator to have the most direct interaction with passengers, and we have no way to protect our operators on cable cars.” In our own discussions with current and former cable car gripmen, they agree that any type of Plexiglas barrier to separate themselves from riders would be infeasible. Beyond that, any kind of social distancing among passengers would drive down capacity to single digits per car.

The Examiner followed with its own, longer article, offering more historic perspective on cable car operations through the eyes of MSR President Rick Laubscher. Beyond the cable cars, both articles noted that Muni has not set a timetable to return the historic streetcars to service on the F- and E-lines, either. A Muni spokeswoman, Erika Kato, noted that most streetcars lack the Plexiglass barriers that currently operational Muni buses have.

The double-end “Torpedo” PCCs already have a protective barrier for operators, as shown in this 2012 photo with operator Angel Carvajal. The top portion here is open and swung behind his seat. Similar barriers are feasible to install on the single-end PCCs.

But that’s a fixable issue. The seven double-end PCC streetcars (Cars 1006-11 and 1015) already have these barriers. The two Melbourne trams, 496 and 916 have operator doors, as does “EuroPCC” (Brussels/Zurich) 737. On the operational Milan trams (about six currently), some hardware is still in place for the Plexiglas barriers that were on those cars when they arrived here from Italy 20 years ago. (Muni removed those barriers.)  It would be straightforward to fit Plexiglas shields again.

The bulk of the F-line fleet is the single-ended streamliner “PCC” cars, which have stanchions already installed in the right location behind the operator, requiring only fitting of hardware and plexiglas.  It’s our understanding that maintenance and engineering have done some preliminary design work already, and have asked top management whether they wish these shields fitted.  But we are not aware of any actual installation work being authorized as of yet.

Muni has the maintenance staff to do this. They’re at work right now, and they have already caught up on the streetcar maintenance backlog during the shutdown (the cars look great; all seats like new, scratched glass replaced, paint touched up).  

It’s clear that Covid-19 is going to be in our midst awhile, so it makes sense to have these changes implemented on the streetcars now. If we wait to do this until it’s safe to resume service, it would likely be an additional 3-6 months to get them back on the street. We are actively advocating for this protective word on the streetcars to be done now. When that’s completed, and with the same social distancing guidelines as other Muni vehicles imposed, it would seem there’s no mechanical or health reason the streetcars couldn’t return.

At that point, it would be up to where we as a society stand against the virus, how much ridership has returned, and how important SFMTA and the City consider the needs of the visitor industry in San Francisco among their many competing priorities. But with cable cars likely blocked from returning for a longer time, the F-line in particular will become the transit lifeline connecting Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, Union Square, Civic Center, and the Castro. Operating it with historic streetcars would clearly send a message that San Francisco is committed to retaining its uniqueness and attractiveness to the world.

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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

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… — Read More

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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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You need this mask!

“Information Gladly Given, But Safety Requires Avoiding Unnecessary Conversation.”

Countless San Francisco commuters have probably taken a few moments to ponder this simple statement, which has been posted near the operator’s station of every Muni bus and streetcar since the early 1960s.

The message is simultaneously friendly and forbidding, inviting yet indifferent, personable yet coldly professional. Now it’s available as an adult face mask, when its message is oh so relevant.

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Muni Heritage Weekend postponed

The very popular annual Muni Heritage Weekend is being postponed at least into spring of 2021. No exact date has yet been sent for the rescheduled event. The postponement has seemed inevitable for weeks, given the course of Covid-19 through San Francisco, and the enduring shelter-in-place orders. SFMTA and Market Street Railway, which co-sponsor the event, agreed this week that it was not feasible to hold it on August 22-23, its scheduled 2020 dates. As a result, we’ve jointly set… — Read More

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Streetcars in the Sunset

When one thinks of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the image of fog, cold salty winds, and sand dunes comes to mind. People have aptly developed their perceptions of this part of San Francisco. While it might be sunny and warm in the Mission District, the Sunset often shivers under a blanket of fog with a biting wind off the ocean and a temperature fifteen degrees lower. The Sunset, west of Twin Peaks and south of Golden Gate Park, is geographically… — Read More

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The Castro’s rich transit history

Cable cars on Castro? An ‘elevated’ railway at Harvey Milk Plaza? Four streetcar tracks on Market? It’s all part of the transit history in a San Francisco neighborhood that has truly seen it all over the years. What the heck is a steam dummy? That’s one, right there, on Market at Castro in the 1880s, looking north from where the Chevron station is now. The little box on the right, called the dummy, holds a steam engine and the operator.… — Read More

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Giving Tuesday: can you help?

Today is Giving Tuesday, a day promoted around the world to focus people’s attention on the needs of many kinds addressed by nonprofits. We at Market Street Railway know full well, especially right now, that there are urgent needs everywhere. We hope you’ll be able to spare a little something for charities in San Francisco, or wherever you’re reading this, that are helping with the Covid-19 pandemic or other human needs. We do want to let you know that Covid-19… — Read More

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Cool backdrops let you Zoom into history

The Zoom app, an obscure business conferencing tool just a few months ago, is suddenly the star and salvation of the shut-down world, with millions of people jumping on to videochat with friends and family. Zoom offers the option of putting an electronic backdrop behind you, and offers some stock scenics. But you can also upload your own, which gave the archives and communications staffs at SFMTA a great idea. We love it! There are samples above and below. Here’s… — Read More

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A familiar (if brief) clang

Wes Valaris says it warmed his heart. Wes is the cable car superintendent, and in our eyes he’s been doing a fantastic job burnishing the historic aspects of this most historic transit operation. But the test ride he took last Friday (April 17) was unlike anything in his career. With the cables silent and the cars in the barn for more than a month now, the great maintenance crew has been catching up on a long backlog of restoration and… — Read More

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Status update, April 15, 2020

Muni has put into effect the dramatic service cuts we told you about in our last update. Muni is currently operating just 17 core routes (out of 87), all served by buses. No rail service of any kind currently. Given our focus, we won’t discuss details of that here, but if you read the public comments at the bottom of SFMA’s announcement, you’ll see a lively debate. The cable car machinery is completely shut down, though some cosmetic and restoration… — Read More

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