Keeping the streetcars ready

“Bumblebee” Car 1057, painted in tribute to Cincinnati, with Cable Car 13 on display at the Powell turntable behind it. Matt Lee photo.

They’re not back yet. At least not for passengers. But the streetcars in Muni’s historic fleet are at least more visible these days where they belong: on the streets of San Francisco.

1928 Milan Tram 1815 on San Jose Avenue near Dolores Street. Jeremy Whiteman photo.

Muni’s F-line and E-line streetcars have been sidelined for nine months now, victims of the Covid-19-related collapse of Muni ridership. But electric vehicles need exercise to stay in good condition. Streetcars just back from outside contractors or inside maintenance have to be tested. And operators have to be trained or retrained for the day passenger service resumes. (No date set for that yet; Muni still has to install protective plexiglass shields between the operator’s cab and the passenger area. Boston and Philadelphia are already doing this; we have asked Muni leadership again to make this a priority.)

PCC Car 1071 (in its original 1946 Minneapolis-St. Paul livery) at Pier 39. Robert Parks photo.

In the meantime, we can at least get a look some of the colorful cars back on the street during the past 30 days, thanks to sharp-eyed photographers who’ve posted to our Facebook group.

Philadelphia Car 1055, in its original livery, on Market at Powell. Val Lupiz photo.
PCC Car 1059, in its tribute livery honoring Boston Elevated Railway, on Market at Powell. Val Lupiz photo.
PCC Car 1051, painted in Muni’s 1960s simplified livery and dedicated to Harvey Milk, at the Ferry Building. Jeremy Whiteman photo.
1934 Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228 at 30th and Church Streets. Michael Strauch photo.
Original 1948 Muni double-end PCC 1006 at 20th and Church. Matt Lee photo.
Another shot of “Bumblebee” Cincinnati Car 1057. turning onto Noe from Market. Lane Bourn photo.
1928 Melbourne tram 496 at Market and Drumm. Daniel Catalan photo.
Philadelphia PCC 1060, wearing that city’s 1938 “Philly Cream Cheese” livery, on the J-line at 18th and Church Streets. Matt Lee photo.
Training new trainers on San Francisco’s oldest streetcar, 1896 “Dinky” 578, on 30th Street at Church. Jeremy Whiteman photo.
Double-end PCC 1015, in Illinois Terminal Railway tribute livery, takes the crossover at Day and Church Streets during burn-in following its return from rebuilding at Brookville Equipment Company in Pennsylvania. Jeremy Whiteman photo.

While you can’t ride these streetcars again just yet, you can have them with you every day. Our online store offers all of these cars’ images — and the others in Muni’s historic fleet as well — on magnets or enamel pins. You can see all of them together on our streetcar fleet poster and placemat. And of course, there are 13 full color 10×14″ images of historic streetcars and cable cars in our 2021 “Museums in Motion” calendar.

All purchases at our online store support our nonprofit’s efforts to get the streetcars carrying passengers again as soon as possible.

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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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Status update April 6, 2020

Muni has announced its most drastic system cutback yet, going into effect the next couple of days. Here is their announcement. It includes a map of the routes that will continue to operate and details on why the service is being further reduced.

This follows last month’s shutdown of, first, the cable cars and historic streetcars, on the grounds that operators had no separation from passengers akin to light rail vehicles and most buses. That was followed by the shutdown of the Market Street Subway, substituting surface buses on all the light rail line. Now, with 40% of operators expected to be off work, mostly self-quarantining for safety purposes, Muni service will be cut down to 17 key lines, focused on serving hospitals and other destinations for essential workers.

Last week did see some vintage streetcars on the streets, though not to carry passengers. Some were test runs by the vintage streetcar maintenance team, still hard at work, catching up on various projects. Above, from an “Orange Milano” training on the J-Church line (at Church & 29th Streets), is the first “Lemon Milano” to appear on the streets in more than two years: Car 1807, which has been out of service. The testing revealed it still has a traction motor problem, which is now being addressed.

Another shop test, of Twin City Rapid Transit PCC 1071, in its original Minneapolis-St. Paul livery, on Church Street, on April 3.

Shop trials weren’t the only vintage operations of the past week. On April 1 (no fooling), PCCs 1051 (the Harvey Milk car) and 1055 (in its original Philadelphia 1940s livery) went out the L-line, resulting in this great shot at 35th Avenue and Taraval, with Car 1055 resting “in the hole” of the track wye on 35th, awaiting a road call from maintenance (remember, these cars haven’t been operating in awhile now). These cars were training new streetcar operators, and this piece of training finished last Friday. Next step is line training, involving supervised operation during regular service, which obviously has been put off. The trained operators have been reassigned to buses for the duration.

Before the training was suspended, though, a clean sweep of Milan liveries, with “Mint Milano” 1814 at the L-line terminal at 46th and Wawona, following “Orange Milano” 1815.

Thanks to the photographers who grabbed these shots. They come from our Facebook Group, which is seeing a big increase in activity with great historic photos being posted and discussed. If you’re not a member, here’s the link. Join us!

And special thanks to all the operators and maintainers doing their very best to keep critical Muni service running. We will get through this!

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Great Kickoff to Heritage Weekend

Mayor London Breed (Center, in blue) leads the ribbon cutting that returned cable car “Big 19”, originally built in 1883, back to Muni’s active fleet after a hiatus of 77 years. She was joined by SFMTA Board Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden (second from right) and the team from Cable Car Division responsible for this miraculous resurrection.

Muni Heritage Weekend got off to a great start last night (Thursday), with a VIP reception at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Upwards of 70 invited business, neighborhood, and civic leaders heard Mayor London Breed extol San Francisco’s history and the role transit played in making the city what it is today. Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher paid tribute to transit pioneers through the decades, whom he described as “fighters for equality, for inclusion, for opportunity”, and lauded the team that brought Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19 back to life. They include: Project Manager Arne Hansen, the shop superintendent; Electric Transit Mechanic Dave Kerrigan, who installed a complete braking system, Master Carpenter Antoni Cunha, who repaired and strengthened the running boards; Painters Danny Hicks and Henry Pegueros, who did a masterful job of painting, polishing the brass, and detailing the cable car.

Mayor Breed addressing the gathering at the museum. MSR Board Vice Chair Antone Sabella (just to her right) looks on.

That group, and the other guests, then processed from the museum two blocks to California and Market Streets, where “Big 19” was staged on the tail track of the California Street cable car line, ready to go. After a ribbon cutting, featuring Mayor Breed, SFMTA Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden, and the car’s restoration crew, Gripman Val Lupiz, whose personal enthusiasm for the project made a big difference in moving it forward, er, moved the car forward … up California Street, “halfway to the stars”, as the song lyric goes with the Mayor and a packed car of guests happily taking it in.

MSR Board Chair Carmen Clark stands in the grip man’s position aboard Big 19, with the restoration team in front of the car, along with MSR Board Member James Giraudo (far left), who contributed the accurate 46-star American flags for the car (commemorating the 1908 date it started working the Sacramento-Clay line), along with the two Cable Car Division superintendents who greenlighted the project: Brent Jones, now acting deputy director of transit for SFMTA, to the right of the shiny brass headlight, and Wes Valaris to the left of the headlight (in hat), current acting super at Cable Car.

Climbing Nob Hill with a crush load is just about the ultimate test for Big 19, and under Val’s expert hand, it went flawlessly. The Mayor had to disembark at Grace Cathedral for her next engagement…clearly reluctantly, asking to ride at least one more block…and the rest of the guests proceeded to Van Ness, where “Big 19” reversed smoothly.

Gripman Val Lupiz waits for a signal to change as Mayor Breed (over his shoulder) enjoys the ride. Former MSR Board Chair Bruce Agid looks toward the mayor from the far running board.

But then the Cable Car Gods said, “Not so fast”. One block into the return trip, another cable car hit a bumper bar on the California cable, causing the cable to automatically shut down. When this happens, the cable machinery crew carefully winds the entire cable all the way through its length, inspecting it as it goes through the winding machinery at the carbarn to ensure it wasn’t damaged. If it is, the line can be shut down for hours.

And so, guests on this memorable inaugural run of Big 19 got an unexpected experience: one of Muni’s brand new hybrid buses appeared to take them back to the museum, making them the first to make that round trip on transit vehicles built 136 apart.

One more shot of Val Lupiz, on his new favorite cable car. Those who are part of our Facebook group, (Market Street Railway) know Val as a devoted cable car historian whose dedication and enthusiasm has helped both Big 19 and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 spend time on the streets.

Later, the cable was found to be fine, and Big 19 returned to the Cable Car Barn without incident. It will be out and running on Heritage Weekend with a VERY special treat starting at 10 a.m. for those who show up at the Cable Car Barn at Washington and Mason Streets: on its pull-out trip, it will go down the Hyde Street Hill to Aquatic Park, then back up Hyde, around the Washington-Jackson loop, and then over to California Street to go into service. At Heritage Weekend Central Control (the plaza outside the museum), we’ll keep track of where Big 19 is, so visitors can catch one of its several trips from California and Market to Van Ness and back.

That’s just one aspect of what’s going to be a great Heritage Weekend. Don’t miss it.

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Boat Tram Sails Again

Blackpool (England) Boat Tram 228 is scheduled to resume its special service on the waterfront Tuesday, August 13 at 11 a.m., following a time in “dry dock” for motor repairs. You can ride the boat Tuesdays and Wednesdays the rest of August and into September between our San Francisco Railway Museum (across from the Ferry Building) and Fisherman’s Wharf between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. While the Muni shops were fixing the motor problem, the shops also replaced the clouded… — Read More

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Back On Track — After 77 Years Off!

Early this morning, a cable car originally constructed in 1883 became Muni’s oldest operating transit vehicle. Early this morning, Sacramento & Clay Sts. cable car 19 made a full trip on the California Street line pulled by the cable. It was the first time this cable car was pulled by a cable on the street in 77 years, since its retirement in 1942. This news, and these wonderful photos, come from Market Street Railway member Traci Cox who documented the… — Read More

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Trip to Europe on the Waterfront

With Blackpool, England Boat Tram 228 pulling an temporary “Brexit” from this summer’s special waterfront streetcar service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Muni Chief Julie Kirschbaum is sending in fun substitutes to fill in. The coming two Tuesdays and Wednesdays (July 23-24 and July 30-31), 1952 Euro PCC 737 (which operated in Brussels but is painted to honor San Francisco’s Sister City, Zurich, Switzerland) will be cruising the waterfront. As a bonus, it will also operate on Swiss National Day, Thursday,… — Read More

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Boat Tram Still Sidelined

Update: 1928 Melbourne Tram 496 will continue to substitute for 1934 Blackpool (England) Boat Tram 228 on The Embarcadero Tuesday and Wednesday, July 16-17, while Muni maintenance crews analyze the problem with one of the motors or bearings. We will provide updates on the progress of fixing the boat tram as available. Muni Maintenance management tells us they will work to get the other Boat Tram, 233, operational for Muni Heritage Weekend, September 7-8, should the problem with 228 be… — Read More

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Melbourne Tram Subs for Boat This Week

The popular 1934 Blackpool (England) open-topped “Boat Tram” encountered a problem at the end of its service week last Wednesday and is being worked on this week, so 1929 Melbourne Tram 496 will substitute for it on the special waterfront service Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Muni assures us they’ll make every effort to return Boat service as quickly as possible. The Melbourne tram is a sweet ride, and with windows that drop all the way… — Read More

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Great Start to Summer Boat Service

The first day of summer boat tram service, May 28, went very well. Some highlights: The Boat ran great, the banners Market Street Railway prepared looked great; thanks to Randy Catanach’s rail maintenance crew. The operating crew (Angel Carvajal and Juiel Rice) were great with riders, very welcoming. Market Street Railway had docents on board all day answering questions. Loads were good all day; full both directions on final few trips. Lots of waves and positive feedback from onlookers all… — Read More

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Boat Tram About to Land

You may have already caught a glimpse of it along the J-line, or Market Street, or The Embarcadero, this week. Here are a couple of shots from Jeremy Whiteman’s Behind the Lens Facebook Group. Blackpool, England Boat Tram 228 is celebrating its 85th birthday this year by taking San Franciscans and visitors for a cruise along our waterfront boulevard, The Embarcadero, from the Ferry Building to Pier 39 (gateway to Fisherman’s Wharf) starting the day after Memorial Day. The past… — Read More

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Sail the Boat Starting May 28

As a Summer gift to San Francisco, Muni will be operating the fabulous Blackpool Boat Tram in regular service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays starting May 28. The special service will last at least through Labor Day, perhaps longer, running from the Ferry Building to Pier 39, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf along The Embarcadero. (The Pier 39 terminal will allow more trips per day, avoiding the long queue of E- and F-line regular service streetcars taking their layover at Jones Street.)… — Read More

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Homeward Bound Bumblebee

This newly renovated Muni PCC streetcar is bringing sunshine on cloudy days as it makes its way back to San Francisco. Car 1057, painted in the eye-popping yellow of Cincinnati Street Railway Company, should arrive in San Francisco on Wednesday, February 20, based on its reported location in Tehachapi on Highway 58 in southern California on the morning of February 19. These photos were posted by Dustin Mosher to our Facebook group. The combination of the bright yellow and the… — Read More

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Broad “Daylight”

What a perfect Valentine’s Day gift to San Francisco. The return of a PCC whose livery has stolen a lot of hearts with its appropriate-for-the-day red coloring. Car 1061 is painted in tribute to Pacific Electric, the legendary Southern California system that once stretched from San Bernardino to Santa Monica, and from the San Fernando Valley to Newport Beach. P-E only had a handful of streamlined PCCs in its enormous fleet, and they were unique: double-ended, with front and center… — Read More

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10-Year Profile Picture Challenge

Posting old and current profile photos side by side has been the rage on Facebook of late, so we thought we’d post our own…just one of dozens of comparisons we could make that show just how wonderful Muni’s restoration of historic streetcars is. This car, 1009, admittedly needed more “plastic surgery” than most others. The photo from 10 years ago shows it ripped (not the good muscle kind, either) and slathered in blue protective paint after sitting out of service… — Read More

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