Muni at war: crushloads & consolidation 1941-1945

As San Franciscans celebrated Thanksgiving in 1941, many were thankful that the economy was finally climbing out of the decade-long Depression that had savaged the city. The downtown area had hardly changed since three high rises had framed the boundaries of the district: the 26 story Pacific Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery Street in 1925; the 32-story Russ Building, the city’s tallest, which opened at 235 Montgomery Street (the self-proclaimed ‘Wall Street of the West’) in 1927; and the 28-story William Taylor Hotel (now a Hastings Law School dorm) at 100 McAllister Street, in 1930. 

Rainy day looking east on Market Street from Fifth, 1943 or 1944.  Lots of umbrellas and streetcars
Rainy day looking east at Market and Fifth, 1943 or early 1944. At this point, the City’s streetcar system was sclerotic from overuse and deferred maintenance, stretched to its breaking point by World War II. MSR Archive

The city’s transit showed little change as well. Four streetcar tracks still ran the length of Market Street, the outer pair for the publicly owned Municipal Railway (Muni), the inside tracks used by its private competitor, Market Street Railway Co. (MSRy, our nonprofit’s namesake). There had been attempts to consolidate the two systems, but voters turned thumbs down every time. Other than five streamlined faux-PCC streetcars purchased in 1939, Muni’s streetcar fleet had not been augmented since 1927, though it had bought its first trolley buses (for a Howard Street line that replaced MSRy streetcars) and expanded its motor coach fleet to inaugurate some crosstown services.

As it turned out, Muni would need every single vehicle in its fleet to meet the tidal wave of riders that was soon to descend on it, even as its competitor left scores of its own streetcars sidelined.

Adapting to war

San Franciscans, like the rest of the nation, were jarred on that sleepy Sunday, December 7, by the shocking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Some panicked, believing the fleet of the Rising Sun could be headed toward them. Indeed, Japanese submarines soon prowled the Pacific coast. So, preventive measures were taken, such as a net stretched across the Golden Gate to keep them out of the Bay, manning of the existing coastal gun emplacements, and a blackout along the western side of San Francisco. 

Muni’s H-line carried riders to and from Fort Mason from 1914 until 1948. The author’s parents both rode the H and met at Fort Mason during the war. here, car 88 (identical to preserved 130) passes the shelter (still there) at the stop for the post headquarters (also still there, now headquarters of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and its nonprofit partner, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy). Bob McVay Photo, Walter Rice Collection of MSR Archive

The blackout included streetcars. In an article republished in the Winter 1997 issue of our nonprofit’s member magazine, Inside Track, George U. Janes remembered a westward night ride on MSRy’s 31-Balboa ‘high speed’ line, roaring through the Avenues with lights ablaze until reaching Park-Presidio Boulevard.

The motorman reaches up and one by one snaps switches, and car lights…extinguish. The entire car is in total darkness. And so is the heavily traveled intersection. And so is Balboa Street all the way to the ocean. Everything out there blacked out and a thick fog to boot—the whole place is like a Hollywood movie set for a mystery film… The blacked-out 31 races through pitch-black intersections at full speed, bell clanging furiously. Nobody, least of all the motorman, can see a thing. ‘They haven’t allowed any additional running time,’ he remarks. ‘Good thing we are on rails.’

George U. Janes

It was a good thing all of San Francisco was on rails back then. Its streetcars, and the people who ran and maintained them, played an essential role in the war effort. 

Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, Muni and MSRy began running preparedness drills at their storage and maintenance facilities to be ready for the worst. MSRy moved buses out of its barn at 24th and Utah Streets, figuring they’d be less susceptible to bomb damage in the open than in the building. 

Muni’s D- and E-lines served the bustling Presidio, providing a great view from their terminal opposite letterman army hospital. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection of MSR Archive

The blackouts soon gave way to longer-lasting and higher-impact war measures. Fuel and tire rationing was near the top of the list. Suddenly, the private automobile was a burden, not a blessing, for workers and families. And they turned to transit.

Muni already served most existing defense facilities in the city. The H-Potrero line ran right through Fort Mason, terminating at the Port of Embarkation for Pacific-bound troops. The F-Stockton line passed by Fort Mason’s eastern gate. Muni’s D-Van Ness and E-Union lines penetrated The Presidio to a terminal near Letterman Army Hospital, where war wounded would soon arrive for treatment. The headquarters of the western U.S. Army defense command were only a short walk away, adjoining the main parade ground.

But these weren’t the only military facilities in the city. The U.S. government went hunting for space to house officers and offices, and took over, among other buildings, the 100 McAllister building, just a block from the saturation streetcar service of Market Street. 

Top photo: Market Street Railway and Muni both provided ad space on the side of their streetcars for recruiting purposes. MSRy’s 14-Mission streetcar asks for volunteers to help the Coast Guard watch for enemies on the waterfront. MSR Archives. Bottom photo: The Muni K-line car, at Church and Market, promotes the Marines. (The white building was later torn down to build the Safeway parking lot.) Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

On the city’s central waterfront, the shipyard at Pier 70 (where some of Muni’s original streetcars had been built) took on frantic levels of activity. Up to 10,000 men and women worked three shifts a day, ultimately building 72 vessels and repairing 2,500 others during the war. 

Southern Pacific freight tracks were used to restore streetcar service to the Bethlehem Shipyard at Pier 70 in 1944. The shipyard office, in the distance to the left of the overhead poles, is to be the primary showcase for Restoration Hardware, part of the massive restoration of the historic buildings on Pier 70. MSR Archive

Muni didn’t serve this edge of the city, but MSRy did. They had converted their Third Street streetcar lines to buses in September 1941 but luckily had retained the tracks and wires as far south as Mariposa street. They added streetcars back to the mix, ultimately reaching the huge Bethlehem Shipyard at Pier 70 (where some of Muni’s streetcars had been built) by using Southern Pacific freight trackage next to Illinois Street. Some of MSRy’s streetcars had their cross seating ripped out and replaced with longitudinal seating against the sides (like today’s F-line Milan trams) to allow more riders to be crammed on board. These were called ‘victory cars’.

No streetcars ever reached Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard farther south, which mushroomed in size during the second half of the war, but the federal government provided extra buses to MSRy to boost its service there. 

Market Street Railway’s 22-Fillmore line carried crosstown riders to the Bethlehem Shipyard at Pier 70, but it also carried baseball fans to Seals Stadium during World War II, when gasoline and tire rationing kept automobiles in garages. In 1942, No. 877, complete with “Baseball Tonight” dash sign, crosses the famous four tracks on Market to join the two-block segment of four tracks on Church Street, where the 22-line and Muni’s J-Church line ran side-by-side. Will Whittaker photo, Philip V. Hoffman Collection, MSR Archive

Breaking barriers

Of course, both transit companies needed people to operate and maintain their vehicles, and many of those employees—all men, and almost all white at the time—were headed off to war. So, like other industries, they looked for new sources of labor.

Muni and MSRy both recruited women for ‘platform’ (motorman and conductor) jobs. Since those terms didn’t seem to fit women, some dubbed them ‘motorettes’ and ‘conductorettes’. But female operators faced challenges. Muni had two operators’ unions at the time. The streetcar union accepted women members—but only for ‘the duration of the war’. The bus union refused women altogether. 

Market Street Railway repainted its logo sites outside some carbarns with these pitches for employees. Richard Schlaich Collection, San Francisco Railway Archive

African-Americans had been migrating west in large numbers, seeking defense jobs. Some found employment on the city’s streetcars and buses, though not without encountering—and having to overcome—strong racism.

By her own account, a 19-year old woman named Marguerite Johnson, recently arrived from Arkansas, was the first African-American to work on San Francisco’s streetcars, hired by Market Street Railway. The account comes from the author and poet Maya Angelou, writing in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 

Angelou is writing about herself, a George Washington High School student at the time, who lied about her age (she was actually 16) and gave a false name to win a streetcar job. All who want a clear and searing picture of wartime San Francisco should read those chapters in the book that cover it. 

This is the MSRy streetcar type, the 100-class (replicated by our volunteers at the San Francisco Railway Museum), that served the streetcar lines Maya Angelou described working on as a ‘conductorette’ during World War II. Here, no. 173 is leaving Golden Gate Park at Fulton Street near Ocean Beach on the 7-Haight line, around 1943. The dutch windmill, still there, is in the background. Jay Pendergast Collection, MSR Archive

Angelou writes of repeated trips to the “dingy, drab” MSRy office at 58 Sutter Street, pushing back against a series of excuses to not hire her. She tells of how her determination intensified when she boarded a streetcar and “the conductorette looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt.” She finally triumphed in her quest:

I was swinging on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading my charges to ‘step forward in the car, please.’ For one whole semester…I clanged and cleared my way down Market Street, with its honky-tonk homes for homeless sailors, past the quiet retreat of Golden Gate Park and along closed undwelled-in-looking dwellings of the Sunset District.

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Surplus in time of need

While Angelou probably worked on numerous routes as a rookie conductor, her description in her book fits the 7-Haight line that ran along Lincoln Way at the southern edge of Golden Gate Park, passing what was an anomalous sight between Funston and 14th Avenues: a block filled with sleeping streetcars at a time when every streetcar was supposedly needed.

Market Street Railway’s ‘boneyard’ at Lincoln Way and Funston Avenue held scores of unused streetcars during World War II, prompting criticism of the private company. Somewhere among these stored cars is preserved 798, which sat out the war at the boneyard. This 1944 photo was actually taken by Muni’s photographer, George Fanning, two months before the special election that combined the two operations. SFMTA Archive

This was MSRy’s ‘boneyard’, where unused streetcars were stored. Scores of streetcars were lined up on the ladder tracks; many of them in good condition but set up to be run by only a single operator. They had been withdrawn from service when the courts had ruled against single-operator service in San Francisco in 1938, siding with organized labor. MSRy President Samuel Kahn said these streetcars remained sidelined because of labor shortages, and if one-operator cars were allowed again, more streetcars would return to the streets. The U.S. Office of Defense Transportation appealed for the change to single-operator service, but San Francisco voters rejected it in 1943 by a margin of better than four to one, a testament to the power of labor unions in the city, even during wartime.

To some extent, Kahn’s statement was disingenuous, as Angelou’s difficulty in getting a job attests. Yet she herself pointed out the bigger problem: “Openings were going begging that paid twice the money” of a platform job, she wrote. And it was true. Both MSRy and Muni had trouble holding onto employees tempted by higher paying defense jobs.

While Muni had the full faith and credit of the City and County of San Francisco behind it, MSRy was a private company in chronic financial trouble. While a 1943 investigation by the California State Railroad Commission castigated MSRy for not returning streetcars to service, deferring maintenance on its fleet and tracks, and not paying its employees enough, it was not clear what the company could do about it. City officials were putting on a full-court press to force a merger with Muni, hardly a conducive environment for investment. Voters weren’t cooperating, though, turning down measures to buy out MSRy in November 1942 and again in April 1943, leaving the private company in a kind of limbo.

The four tracks on Market extended all the way to Castro, but west of Valencia, MSRy’s inside tracks carried only the 8-line. In 1941, Muni offered to pay to combine the tracks on this portion of Market, and MSRy agreed, but the war postponed implementation for the duration. Here, we’re looking east on Market between Church and Dolores. Today, Safeway’s parking lot and the US Mint are to the left. San Francisco Public Library photo.

Coming together

All the while, Muni kept rolling on. While much smaller than MSRy, it wasn’t saddled with many low-revenue routes it was required to operate as a condition of a franchise from the city. And while it sounds crazy today, the difference between Muni’s five cent fare and its competitor’s seven cents drew a lot of extra riders to Muni where the companies had parallel service. (It was, after all, a 40 percent difference in an era when a nickel bought a cup of coffee.) The diversion of riders, most prominent on the Market Street lines, hurt MSRy while increasing Muni’s profits. 

Muni marked its 30th anniversary on December 28, 1942 in a low-key way, given the fighting raging around the world and the sacrifices being made by Americans on the home front. Car 1 was fitted with banners marking the occasion, claiming the streetcar “would like to retire” but was “drafted for the duration”—not quite true, since Muni had no money, even before the war, to replace its first batch of streetcars. SFMTA Archive

To meet increased demand, Muni pressed its only class of underused streetcars, the Type-J ‘dinkies’ that served the hilly E-Union, into additional service on the F-Stockton line. Still, Muni’s fleet was pressed to the limit as more and more war production jobs were created. Spare streetcars were nearby at Funston Boneyard, but they were owned by the competition.

Muni’s preserved Car 1 split its wartime duties between the C-Geary-California line and Muni’s original F-Stockton line. Here, having been repainted in blue and gold a few months earlier, No. 1 lays over at the F-line terminal on Stockton at Market on Christmas day 1944, ready for another run through Chinatown and North Beach to Fort Mason and the Marina. Roy Graves photo, MSR Archive

But not for long. Finally, on May 16, 1944, San Francisco voters approved the acquisition of MSRy, on the premise that it would be paid for by Muni’s increased wartime profits. The nearly two-to-one vote came after a vigorous campaign by the new mayor, Roger Lapham, for consolidation of the systems.

Mayor Roger Lapham pilots the first Market Street Railway car out of the barn on the day the city took ownership. SFMTA Archive

The two systems officially became one at 5:00am on September 29, 1944, when Mayor Lapham piloted an old MSRy streetcar out of Muni’s Geary Division. It was a sign of things to come, because to balance the wartime loads, Muni soon pressed ex-MSRy cars into service on a couple of its original lines, including the C-Geary-California and H-Potrero.

But there wasn’t a lot to work with, as the city’s Manager of Utilities, E.G. Cahill, wrote in the May 1945 issue of Interurban News Letter.

The entire former Market Street Railway of San Francisco will have to be scrapped immediately after the war. In fact, if the war lasts too long, it will scrap itself. It is obvious that equipment, every piece of which must be dragged off to the barns for repairs 15 times in five months, is in the last stages of decrepitude. It will be a miracle if this rambling wreck of a railway can be held together for the duration, regardless of the amount of money we spend on it.

E. G. Cahill, San Francisco City and County Manager of Utilities, May 1945

Cahill was talking about facilities as well as equipment. Stretches of the MSRy track were barely useable. In fact, MSRy had convinced the federal Office of Defense Transportation to let them abandon the Guerrero Street track of the 10-line because it was so bad.

Soon after the 1944 merger, Muni began painting the ends of the streetcars it acquired with Market Street Railway to avoid paying royalties on the patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme. Here, ex-MSRy car 243, on the 1-California line, lays over at the Ferry Building loop alongside its former competitor, Muni car 107 (identical to preserved 130), assigned to the M-ocean View line, which had been converted to shuttle bus operation in 1939 due to lack of rider demand, but was turned into a through streetcar service using Twin Peaks tunnel as soon as the merger made extra streetcars available. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive

Deferred maintenance, heavy wartime loads, and just plain age (much track in the system was 40 or more years old) combined to create more wear on the streetcars and rough rides for passengers.

Of course, employees of MSRy came over to the City with the system, requiring an extensive effort to integrate workers for seniority, consolidate different kinds of shops and rationalize the assignment of equipment to car barns. 

Every one of the big 1200-class of streetcars serving MSRy’s famed interurban 40-line to San Mateo was soon repainted into Muni’s blue and gold livery, as were a few other MSRy cars. In fact, all of the old MSRy streetcars had to get some paint, because the City Charter precluded payment of royalties for the patented ‘White Front’ paint scheme to the residual MSRy shell corporation. Accordingly, the old cars, their platforms sagging from age and wartime loads, were run through the paint shops to get their ends repainted, usually Muni blue and gold, quite a clash with the still-green sides.

Ex-MSRy streetcars began appearing on Muni’s C and H lines soon after the merger. Here, in a particularly garish combo paint scheme, car 933, built by MSRy’s craftsworkers in 1930, traverses what is now Fort Mason’s Great Meadow, approaching the H-line terminal on Laguna Street. The Muni blue and gold ends are particularly jarring against the ‘zip stripe’ sides, a design tried by MSRy in the late 1930s to make their old-fashioned streetcars look, well, zippy. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection of MSR Archive

Painting, patching, and persevering week after week, the now-combined workforce of Muni and MSRy kept the system functioning until V-J Day, August 14, 1945, when the War in the Pacific ended.

V-J day triggered a wild celebration on Market street, with Muni streetcars (including those it had acquired the previous year from Market street railway Co.) right in the middle of it. It was the finish line of a marathon for the transit system, with equipment and facilities near collapse. Steve Clark collection

The late Philip Hoffman, Market Street Railway’s long-time historian, remembered how he, as a 14-year old, joined the celebration that brought wall-to-wall crowds to Market Street. “I saw people climbing on the roof of streetcars and I thought, ‘This is my golden opportunity.’ So, I climbed on the roof of car 86 and rode down Market until finally the inspector at Van Ness told me to come down and I was 86’d off car 86.” 

For hours on August 14, 1945, traffic on Market was halted or slowed by revelers – many drunk – who clambered onto streetcar roofs. Compare the faces of riders inside the car with those on the roof. MSR Archive

That celebration also had a very dark side. Eleven people died, including a Muni employee, and many more were assaulted in revelry gone very wrong – despicable, riotous acts.

World War II was over. Muni had made it through, though its competitor didn’t. And San Francisco emerged a stronger city, beloved by hundreds of thousands of GIs who passed through headed to and from the Pacific Theater; many promising themselves they’ve move here someday.

But though San Francisco never received an enemy bomb or shell, there was still wreckage in sight on V-J Day: its streetcar system.

COMING SOON: Rails to Rubber, Muni 1947-1962

  • By Rick Laubscher

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The people’s road: Muni 1912-1941

FIRST OF ITS KIND—A new era in American urban transit began on December 28, 1912, with the opening of the Municipal Railway of San Francisco on Geary Street, the first publicly owned big city line in the u.S. Some 50,000 San Franciscans turned out to cheer for their ‘Muni’, as it soon came to be called. SFMTA Archive

NOTE: This is the second installment of our history of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, covering Muni’s first three decades of operation. Click here to learn how America’s first big city publicly-owned transit system came to be.

“The People’s Road.” The simple phrase Mayor James Rolph, Jr. used to describe the San Francisco Municipal Railway on its opening day carried more emotion and power than today’s observers might think. For while it’s hard to believe today, there was a time when every big city in America was served only by privately owned transit companies, focused first on profit. They were often owned by utility conglomerates that also supplied electricity. And, in some cases, they were corrupt, doing what they needed to—legal or not—to protect their government-issued franchises.

San Franciscans were the first to change that. It started with a new city charter in 1900, calling for eventual public ownership of all utilities, including transit.

Muni’s first operation, on Geary Street, carried four lines—the A, B, C, and D—for various distances. Here, a C-line car poses headed west at Geary and Divisadero in 1923. This historic part of Geary was cleared in the 1960s for “redevelopment”. Market Street Railway Archive

Making that dream come true was another matter. The city targeted the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railroad—a cable car line running from Kearny Street to the Richmond District—as the first municipal line, as its city-granted operating franchise was due to expire in 1903. But voters turned down a bond issue to convert it to streetcar operation, not once, but three times before finally passing it in 1909. One factor in the change of voters’ attitudes were the transgressions of privately owned United Railroads, which had been involved in bribery and a protracted strike during the preceding few years.

United Railroads predictably tried to block the city’s bond sale, but failed, and in June 1911 construction of overhead wires began above the Geary cable car line. The cable cars stopped running on May 5, 1912, and in an unbelievably fast conversion, the entire cable car trackage was ripped out and replaced by new streetcar track in time to inaugurate the new Municipal Railway on December 28, 1912. It was the very first publicly owned big city transit line in America.

The Masonic Temple, then as now anchoring the foot of Van ness Avenue, looms over Muni streetcar no. 10, crossing Market onto 11th Street, bound for Army and Potrero on the H-line, in the late 1910s. Market Street Railway Archive

Fifty thousand San Franciscans joined to cheer on that day as ten new streetcars headed west out Geary from Kearny Street. Mayor Rolph told the throng, “It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money…we must extend it wherever possible until it becomes a great municipal system…a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.” The mayor then donned a motorman’s cap and personally took the controls of the first car, preserved Muni Car No. 1, and piloted it out Geary, jammed with dignitaries and (literal) hangers-on

A fair brings focus

Mayor Rolph didn’t rest on his laurels. California had led America into the Progressive Era, a time of strong belief in government’s ability to better the lives of its citizens through public investment. Accordingly, the new ‘Muni’ railway expanded aggressively. The upcoming 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District provided a strong early focus, since the fair site was underserved by transit. 

By building several new lines and acquiring another, a network of Muni streetcars was in place in time to serve the world’s fair, with direct service from the Ferry Building, Downtown, North Beach and the Potrero District, with connections from other points around town. 

The City opened the Stockton Tunnel under Nob Hill in 1914, primarily for the streetcars of Muni’s original F-line, which was initially designed to connect the Union Square retail district to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at Harbor View (what’s now the Marina District). This was part of a frenzy of expansion after Muni opened its first lines on Geary. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

Muni streetcars used the new Stockton Tunnel to connect Market Street and Union Square to Chinatown in a few minutes. They also served Fort Mason and the Presidio and reached all the way from the Ferry Building to Ocean Beach on the B-Geary line. Construction also began on a Muni streetcar line out Church Street, but United Railroads objected to sharing its 22-line tracks between Market and 16th on Church, delaying Muni service there until 1917.

But the biggest project was yet to come. Under the leadership of City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, the city dug the world’s longest streetcar tunnel, two and a quarter miles long, from Castro and Market Streets to an expanse of scrub and sand dunes west of Twin Peaks. The four million dollar project was funded by assessments on the largely empty property it would benefit.

The east portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, shown here in 1935, was very simple in design to facilitate a future connection with a streetcar subway under Market Street, not built until the 1970s. The inside tracks belonged to Market Street Railway’s 8-line, which ended a block south on Castro and 18th, connecting to a cable car that climbed over to noe Valley. Market Street Railway Archive.

Shortly after the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened on February 3, 1918, homes began springing up in this barren district, suddenly accessible to downtown offices and stores. United Railroads was interested in using the new tunnel, too, but the Board of Supervisors, which then directly governed Muni, nixed the idea by a narrow margin. Muni eventually ran three streetcar lines through the Twin Peaks Tunnel. 

Because of San Francisco’s unusual downtown street grids, the spine of any transit system had to be Market Street. But United Railroads already had streetcar tracks on Market all the way from the Ferry Building to Castro and was not anxious to share them. So the city built its own tracks flanking those of the private company. The four sets of streetcar tracks on this broad boulevard were nearly unique in America, and the rumble of the heavy streetcars as they moved along Market gave birth to the term, ‘Roar of the Four’.

Muni’s first bus line crossed Golden Gate Park after streetcars were blocked from doing so. At Tenth and Fulton Streets with an A-line streetcar, 1918. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

Buses make their debut

Before World War I, motorbuses were rare in America, though they already dominated transit systems in such cities as London (where the double-deckers of the day went to war in Europe carrying troops and medical supplies). Muni’s first bus line was, in a way, a sign of surrender. City Engineer M. M. O’Shaughnessy planned to extend Muni’s first streetcar line from 10th and Fulton across Golden Gate Park to serve the southern Sunset District. But this mighty builder met his match in another titan of San Francisco municipal history, John McLaren, superintendent of Golden Gate Park, who said no to more overhead wires in the park (United Railroads’ 7-line tracks and wires already skirted the western edge of the park). After a bruising intramural battle, McLaren triumphed, leaving Muni to substitute a bus instead.

After Muni’s L-Taraval streetcar line made it to Ocean Beach in 1923, the 2-Ocean bus line connected riders to the outer end of the B-Geary line on the other side of Golden Gate Park. Wide-open spaces at 48th and Taraval on May 15, 1925 with a White Motor 25-seat bus, probably newly delivered No. 012, not yet equipped with Muni logo. SFMTA Archive

Several other bus lines followed in less populated areas of the city, either to connect Muni streetcar lines or serve as extensions of them. Unlike the downtown streetcar lines, these lost money from the beginning due to low ridership. Some were subsidized, like a line that opened in 1926 from the Peninsula train depot, then at Third and Townsend Streets, to Fisherman’s Wharf along the Embarcadero. The port, then a state agency, underwrote the service to move workers along the busy docks when the business of the waterfront was shipping.

A streetcar city

But in the 1920s and 1930s, buses were a sideshow in San Francisco transit. Streetcars ruled the streets, especially Market Street, where a typical evening rush hour saw almost 900 streetcars traverse the triple loop to terminate at the Ferry Building, for a time the second busiest transit terminal in the world (after London’s Charing Cross). Car loaders from the competing operations, Muni, and the Market Street Railway Company (which had taken over United Railroads in 1921) called like carnival barkers to attract passengers, the Muni men often yelling “ALL the way out Mah-ket” in the San Francisco accent of the era.

This detailed cartoon, by Al Tolf in the old San Francisco News, captures the detail of the incredible Ferry Building streetcar operation shared by Muni and Market Street Railway in its heyday. MSR Archive

In 1928, Muni opened another streetcar tunnel, under Buena Vista Park, connecting Market Street to Ocean Beach primarily via Judah Street. The Sunset Tunnel, like the Twin Peaks Tunnel, was built by assessing property owners along the route. The alignment was not a slam-dunk. Merchants near Castro and Market fought unsuccessfully to have the new tunnel branch off from the Twin Peaks Tunnel just inside its east portal, hoping to deposit lots more riders on their doorstep.

Given how many streetcars switched onto and off of Market, there are relatively few photos of accidents. This one, at Market and McAllister, was a doozy, with the switch onto the 5-line somehow throwing after the front wheels of the 7-Haight car had passed through, derailing the Market Street Railway car, blocking the Muni tracks and drawing a crowd. Philip Hoffman collection, MSR Archive

The opening of the Sunset Tunnel marked the last new Muni streetcar line for more than a half-century. The year before, San Franciscans defeated a proposed $4.6 million bond issue that would have built a new Muni streetcar line on Balboa Street (ultimately constructed by Market Street Railway in 1932), another line from Castro and Market along Eureka and Hoffman Streets to 29th Street (never built), and an extension of Church Street service to Geneva Avenue via San Jose Avenue (finally opened in 1991). Ominously, Muni’s finances were fraying as well.

The Ferry Building’s transit heyday ended with the opening of the Bay Bridge and the subsequent completion of the bridge railway, carrying interurban trains from the East Bay to First and Mission Streets. Here, a Muni D-line streetcar and a Market Street Railway 5-line car cross Mission on First, about to climb the streetcar ramp to the terminal, which was demolished in the past year. Walter Vielbaum Collection.

The basic fare, five cents, hadn’t changed since 1912. With transfers, riders could cross the city on a nickel. But, of course, labor costs had increased, more so for the two-operator streetcars than the single-operator buses. If the line was busy enough, like Muni’s Geary lines, a profit could still be delivered. 

But along streetcar routes that ran through almost empty land, like the area that’s now Stonestown, San Francisco State, and Parkmerced, the red ink was already flowing. The same was true for most of the bus lines, even with their lower labor costs, because passengers were few, and the route often existed as a public service pushed by elected officials to serve constituents. By comparison, the private Market Street Railway had fixed routes with service levels dictated by demand, not political pressure.

Depression and deficits

The 1930s were difficult times for transit providers in San Francisco. The Depression cut work-related ridership and tight finances discouraged discretionary travel for many families. Muni ridership declined 19 percent between 1929 and 1933. Market Street Railway lost 22 percent of riders in the same period, even though it had regained the public confidence lost by its predecessor, United Railroads, and won a 25-year extension of its operating franchises in 1930, with the proviso that the City could buy them out by vote of the people at any time. (A 1925 buyout proposal had failed by a margin of 7-1 at the polls; the price was considered way too high. A similar attempt would fall flat in 1938.) 

Click to enlarge.

Muni responded to the ridership drop with a raft of economy measures, including shutting down some bus lines, eliminating every other streetcar stop in outlying areas and encouraging motormen to reduce the amount of electricity used to operate their streetcars. Losses continued to mount, but with Muni now part of the city’s new Public Utilities Commission, which also included profit-making water and electricity operations, there was enough financial flexibility to retain the five-cent fare. 

Meanwhile, Market Street Railway, up against the wall financially, won an injunction against a city ordinance requiring two-person crews on streetcars and, starting in 1935, converted eighteen of its streetcar lines (though not its busy Market and Mission Street routes) to single-operator cars. Higher courts reinstated the two-person streetcar requirement in 1938, which coincided with a fare increase from five to seven cents by Market Street Railway. Even at the higher fare, the private company could not afford to staff vehicles with two operators on more lightly traveled routes, resulting in the conversion of some such lines to buses beginning in 1939.

Time was running out for the M-Ocean View streetcar when this shot was taken at St. Francis Circle in 1939. Within weeks, this shuttle line was discontinued, but the track and wires were left in place and service resumed in 1944, running all the way to the Ferry Building. Subsequent development along southern 19th Avenue have made the M one of Muni’s busiest lines today. San Francisco Public Library Photo.

Muni never tried to reduce streetcar crews to one person in that era, nor did they match Market Street Railway’s fare increase. Though a boost from five to seven cents seems trivial today, those two pennies represented a 40 percent fare increase, and it affected the transit riding choices of many families stretched to the limit by the Depression. For example, some riders would forsake the Market Street Railway cars on Sutter or Eddy for the Muni cars on Geary, even if it meant walking another block or so on each end of the trip.

Muni took its fare-based fight against Market Street Railway to new turf as well, taking over one of the company’s expired (and unprofitable) streetcar franchises on Howard Street and South Van Ness Avenue and replacing it with a new trolley coach line in 1941, which could legally be operated by a one-person crew. This new line pilfered some business from the two-person, seven-cent-fare streetcars Market Street Railway ran on Mission Street. (Market Street Railway had started its own trolley coach line in 1935, converting the 33-line streetcar that ran on 18th Street and over Twin Peaks to take advantage of the single-operator opportunity.)

First modern streetcars

Trolley coaches aside, Muni’s electric fleet was aging. The vast majority of its streetcars were at least a quarter century old by 1939. They shared a common boxy look with open platforms that made them drafty and cold when fog draped the city. Owners of many remaining private streetcar systems around the country had come together earlier in the decade to form a Presidents Conference Committee (PCC) that designed a sleek, streamlined streetcar they hoped would compete with buses and the increasingly popular private automobile, and, importantly, could be safely operated with a single-person crew, like a bus. The first PCC streetcars appeared in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Boston, and Pittsburgh in 1936; other cities soon followed, including Los Angeles and San Diego in California.

Muni’s first modern streetcars, purchased in 1939, drew stares wherever they ran. Here, no. 1002 is on display at the original F-line terminal on Stockton at Market. The modern cars never actually ran in service on the old F-line, spending most of their time on the L-Taraval in the early years. San Francisco Municipal Railway Archives.

Muni, however, had little funding available and poor prospects of winning approval from voters for more. (A proposed $49 million bond issue to build streetcar subways under Market, Mission, and Geary Streets garnered only 41 percent of the vote in 1937, far short of the two-thirds requirement.) Muni scraped together enough for five modern streetcars, but the city charter prohibited payment of patent royalties, which covered several innovations in the control systems of PCCs. 

So, instead, Muni ordered PCC-style bodies with a mish-mash of different non-patented components (such as hand controllers instead of foot pedals) from different suppliers. While not authentic PCCs, these so-called ‘Magic Carpet’ streetcars, delivered in a stunning blue-and-gold livery instead of Muni’s traditional battleship gray, gave San Franciscans their first taste of modern streetcars, even though they were operated by two-person crews.

When tough economic times hit in the 1930s, Market Street Railway tried converting many of its two-operator streetcar lines to a single operator. Trying to squeeze the private company and preserve jobs, the city promoted a ballot measure requiring two-operator streetcars “for all time.” The measure passed, but was finally repealed in 1954 after almost killing Muni’s surviving streetcar lines. John G. Graham Collection, San Francisco Public Library.

(Market Street Railway would have loved to acquire streamlined streetcars too, but only got as far as blueprints before economic realities set in. That dream finally came true in 2012, sort of, with the debut of rebuilt PCC 1011 for the F-line fleet in the streamlined Market Street Railway livery, a tribute to the private company.)

On the cusp of change

By late 1941, the stage was set for change in San Francisco transit. Muni had ordered more trolley coaches, intending to convert its Union Street streetcar line from the small two-operator ‘dinkies’ to the one-operator electric buses. Similarly seeking to cut labor and maintenance costs, Market Street Railway had converted its cable car line on Castro Street to buses and was planning to do the same with its Sacramento-Clay line. For the same reasons, motor buses had replaced most streetcars on Market Street Railway’s 19-Polk and the busy Third and Kearny lines. Talk of consolidating the two systems and modernizing them was on the rise again in the city by the Bay.

But on December 7, 1941, the world of San Francisco transit, like the world as a whole, was dramatically changed by an event halfway across the Pacific.

Coming soon: Muni at War

  • by Rick Laubscher
2 Comments on The people’s road: Muni 1912-1941

How Muni was born

BORROWED TIME—Its franchise already past its expiration date, a Geary cable train (dummy and trailer) rolls west past Union Square in 1905. The steel-framed building at 166 Geary, then under construction, survived the earthquake and fire the following year, and is still there.

NOTE: This is the first of five articles chronicling the history of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Others are being posted in the following weeks.

Public mass transit is something government does, right? Today, yes, but it used to be the opposite. Private companies provided that service for a profit and government stayed out of it.

Until the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) arrived on the scene on December 28, 1912. Muni was America’s first big city transit service “built by the people”. How it came to be is a story filled with politics, corruption, and progressivism, because we’re talking about San Francisco!

FAST TIMES AT JONES & GEARY—Here are two photos taken just eleven months apart, looking northeast at Jones and Geary Streets. In both photos we can see the cable car tracks of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line crossing Geary. The blurred images of the vehicles suggest action, rather than staged photos, making this a remarkable coincidence. Above, Geary cable car No.5 roars westward toward its terminal at Fifth Avenue and Fulton Street on February 1, 1912. The overhead wire for Muni’s forthcoming streetcars is already in place. The advertising hoardings along the sidewalk indicate it’s January 1912. Below, on December 28 of that same year, Mayor Rolph pilots Muni Car 1 across the same intersection on brand new streetcar track, the car literally packed with hangers-on. This photo was in the files of the San Francisco Public Library with no identification when we came across it some 20 years ago, and recognized it for what it is: the only known photo of a Muni streetcar in actual operation following the opening day celebration at Kearny and Geary: Day 1, Run 1, Car 1. Top: John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive; bottom: San Francisco Public Library

Charter sets a goal

In the late 19th century, privately owned transit companies were one of the biggest industries in the United States. They operated by renting the right from city governments to build tracks on specific streets in a city and carry paying passengers on rail vehicles (first horsecars, then cable cars, then electric streetcars as technology quickly evolved). In densely populated cities such as San Francisco, this led to cutthroat competition between companies with rights on parallel streets (and left remnants still in place today, with the closely-spaced service still prevalent in a few parts of our City). It also encouraged corruption, as we will see. By the end of the century, many progressive leaders in the City were determined to find a better way.

In 1900, San Francisco voters approved a new City Charter, which among other progressive features called for eventual city government ownership of all public utilities. There was widespread dissatisfaction with privately owned transit in the City, largely consolidated in 1902 under Chicago ownership as United Railroads. Part of this dissatisfaction was the company’s refusal to invest the required money to convert the slow cable car system on Market to faster electric streetcars, using the underground power system then operating successfully in Manhattan and in Washington. The company wanted overhead wires, which were already in use on the lines on side streets they had converted to streetcar use, but which were staunchly opposed by those who felt Market Street should be wire-free. (A tangle of overhead power and telephone lines had only recently been undergrounded along Market.)

A lengthy cable line, running from Market and Geary westward to Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District, had eluded the grasp of the United Railroads octopus. Its city-granted franchise to operate had an expiration date of November 6, 1903. Following the Charter’s mandate, city leaders swept into action, commissioning the city engineer, C.E. Grunsky, in 1901 to prepare plans and estimate costs to use the Geary Street cable tracks, which were in excellent condition, for an electric streetcar line, with power supplied by the underground conduit system, with the cable channel acting as the conduit. This would have been inexpensive and avoided overhead wires.

PRIME REAL ESTATE—A Geary cable train passes the exact spot where successor Muni streetcars would make their first run nine years later, at Kearny Street in 1903. Not part of the United Railroads, with its franchise expiring, the line ran through prime retail and residential areas. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, larger second-hand Market Street cable cars took over on Geary from the smaller cable trains. SFMTA Archive

But city voters failed to give the necessary two-thirds majority to a bond issue to pay for the conversion in 1902. A second try, in 1903, also failed at the ballot box. At this point, Mayor James D. Phelan joined with interests related to the powerful Claus Spreckels (who owned the Call Building across the street from the Geary cable line’s turntable) to create something called the “Municipal Street Railways of San Francisco”. This private company was structured so that the city could buy it at any time by simply paying the capital costs expended to that point, plus interest. Their goal was to implement streetcar lines using the underground conduit system for power. They filed their corporate papers with the State of California on April 17, 1906.

Quake shakes things up

The next day, the earth shook and the sky burned (to steal the title of William Bronson’s great history of the earthquake and fire). The transit system was a shambles, with cable lines especially hard hit. The Phelan-Spreckels company was soon forgotten. United Railroads managed to get the Fillmore crosstown streetcar line (today’s 22) back in service within a week, and won permission to string wires “temporarily” on Market so electric streetcars could quickly take over, since the cable machinery had been wrecked. (They soon made this permanent by bribing the entire Board of Supervisors.) A city budget item to have the city take over and rehabilitate the Geary cable line was diverted to rebuild streets and public buildings, but the line did get castoff Market Street cable cars, far larger than the small dummy and trailer sets previously used on Geary.

QUICK WORK—It’s August 10, 1912, and the old cable car tracks on Geary are being ripped out at Grant Avenue. The overhead streetcar wire is already in place. Less than five months to go before Muni’s opening day. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

City leaders tried again to win voter approval for a municipal streetcar line on Geary in June 1909. Voters again rejected it, but this time it was very close, so it was put back on the ballot on a special election on December 30, 1909. This time, the fourth attempt, voters said yes.

Muni becomes reality

But some bankers said no to the Municipal Railway bonds, seeing this novel public operation as risky. Many of the bonds were sold instead to local investors, and by June 1911, the City was ready to begin construction. 

CROSSING POWELL—Besides replacing the Geary cable car track, all the crossings of other rail lines had to be replaced as well. On July 27, 1912, crews are installing the new crossing at Powell Street. This scene has barely changed in 109 years. Both the St. Francis Hotel and the building in the background at Post and Geary are still there. John Henry Mentz photo, SFMTA Archive

City-employed laborers planted poles and strung overhead wire while the Geary cable cars ran beneath. Other crews built new streetcar track from Fifth Avenue to 33rd, with a spur along Tenth Avenue to reach Golden Gate Park. Then, on May 5, 1912, it was time to begin the final phase. The Geary cable fell silent as celebrants banged pots and honked horns to end its era. The old trackway was soon engulfed with contractors with work gangs and steam-powered heavy equipment, ripping out the formidable cable yolks concreted into the street and laying down streetcar tracks. A separate contract to W.L. Holman was to supply 43 new “California-type” streetcars, with open end sections and a closed center section for smoking.

The street work went astonishingly fast (especially by today’s standards), with 6.5 miles of track between Kearny Street and Fifth Avenue completely replaced in seven months, not counting the new carbarn ladder tracks at Geary and Presidio Avenue. The cars were more problematic. Holman, an experienced cable car builder (who had recently finished constructing a new fleet of cable cars for the California Street Cable Railroad Company, to replace those incinerated in 1906), faltered in fulfilling the order, ultimately only delivering ten cars by December 1912, and twenty overall. The rest of the order was built by Union Iron Works, from which Holman had gotten the steel for the cars it built. (The shop building where these streetcars were built has just been renovated into tech-oriented office space as part of the magnificent restoration and repurposing of the Union Iron Works (later Bethlehem Steel) site at Pier 70 on the Central Waterfront.)

HURRY UP—We’re just four months from startup, and the Geary Carhouse is just getting started. But then again, none of Muni’s first ten streetcars had been delivered by this date, August 30, 1912, either. Amazingly (especially considering the grading, visible at right, was done by horses and scrapers), they made it. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

Finally, on December 28, 1912, that memorable moment we’ve recounted many times: as 50,000 San Franciscans cheered, Mayor James Rolph, Jr., boarded Municipal Railway Car Number 1, deposited one of the first nickels ever produced at the San Francisco Mint, and announced to the crowd, “It is in reality the people’s road, built by the people and with the people’s money. The first cable road in the country was built in San Francisco, and now the first municipal railway of the country is built in San Francisco. Our operation of this road will be closely watched by the whole country. It must prove a success! … I want everyone to feel that it is but the nucleus of a mighty system of streetcar lines which will someday encompass the entire city.”

Rolph instantly followed up by promoting a $3.5 million bond issue to expand Muni, campaigning hard for it and winning voter approval in 1913. Initial Muni expansion included digging the Stockton Street Tunnel to bring streetcars from downtown to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and penetrating the Mission District with the H-line on Potrero Avenue and Van Ness, and the J-Church. Then the biggest project of all, the Twin Peaks Tunnel, carrying the K and L lines into the Ingleside and Parkside Districts.

Before its tenth birthday, Muni was operating eleven full-time streetcar lines, adding two more (the M and N) later in the 1920s. But realizing Rolph’s dream of a city-wide Municipal Railway would have to wait and wait until, after six attempts overwhelmingly defeated by the electorate over an 18-year period, voters finally approved the buy-out of United Railroads’ successor, Market Street Railway Company on May 16, 1944, with the merged system debuting on September 29 of that year.

FAIR COMPETITION—It’s less than three years from Muni’s first run, and already the “People’s Railroad” is winning hearts of San Franciscans, with big expansion projects in time to serve the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in what’s now the Marina District. A happy crushload of fairgoers departs this special D-line car at the exposition’s Chestnut Street gate. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA archive

From the perspective of voter approval, you could say that for getting Muni started, “fourth time’s a charm.” For making it city-wide, “seventh time’s a charm.”

  • By Rick Laubscher

We are indebted to the definitive history of Muni, The People’s Railway, by Anthony Perles, published in 1980 and now, sadly, out of print, but often available on eBay.

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Forty frustrating years underground

PRISTINE PLATFORM—Civic Center Muni Metro Station, with a packed two-car N-Judah train, when the subway was new in 1980. SFMTA Archive

The idea of a transit subway under Market Street goes back to the first years of the 20th century, but it took more than 70 fitful years to become reality. That’s a complex and fascinating story we tell in this companion post, which explains the compromises that harmed Muni’s subway operation from the get-go.

The subway that finally got built has two levels between the Ferry Building and Van Ness Avenue, with regional BART trains running beneath Muni light rail vehicles (LRVs). Under Muni’s Van Ness station, BART trains turn south to continue under Mission Street, while the Muni subway continues west under Market to connect to the Twin Peaks Tunnel just west of Castro Street. In passing the 1962 bond issue that built BART and the Market Street subway, voters were told all five existing streetcar lines would use the subway.

In 1966, after warnings from an expert team that the subway would not function well with all five streetcar lines merging into it, San Francisco voters were asked to approve a true rapid transit subway, extended to San Francisco State College (now University), with high-platform trains like New York used. The other streetcar lines would become connector buses, feeding the subway. The $96.5 bond issue to pay for it was approved by 58% of voters, but it needed 2/3 to pass. That sealed a decision that has led to 40 years of challenges and frustrations in operating the Muni Metro Subway. That’s what this story is about.

The Latest Challenge

Muni Metro faced its biggest challenge with the Covid pandemic, starting in the spring of 2020. Completely shut down, along with all Muni rail service and most bus lines at that time, the subway reopened on a limited basis in August 2020, only to shut again three days later when the overhead failed. Muni replaced all the splices in the overhead and finally opened again in mid-2021, again on a limited basis. During the shutdown, Muni discovered numerous problems with subway infrastructure that they say will likely require further shutdowns over the next five to eight years to remedy.

Meanwhile, every other urban rail subway system in North America has either operated continuously through the Covid-19 crisis, or resumed operation after a brief shutdown. This includes the light rail subway-surface systems most akin to San Francisco’s, in Boston and Philadelphia, which opened in 1897 and 1906 respectively.

EXPECTING WHAT, EXACTLY?—Muni mounted a public relations campaign for its Boeing LRVs when they were on their way. All observers agree that the Boeings turned out to be problem children. SFMTA Archive

Coping with Covid is the newest chapter in the checkered history of a transit facility that opened on February 18, 1980, promising fast, reliable underground service to replace the aging, smaller “PCC” streetcars on Market Street.
Of course, thanks to Mayor Dianne Feinstein and many advocates, including Market Street Railway’s current leaders, fully-renovated PCCs again because part of the San Francisco scene, gaining great popularity providing reliable service on the surface of Market Street and waterfront streets on the F-line.

Meanwhile, Muni Metro has faltered repeatedly over its four decades of service under ten different top Muni bosses. Perhaps that unfortunate track record will be improved by this latest attempt to fix it. And as we will see, it’s possible historic streetcars on the surface might help the subway beneath run better in years to come.  

Trying to make it work

The shiny new Muni Metro subway beneath Market Street opened to passengers on its first line, the N-Judah, on February 18, 1980. In our companion story, we recounted the 60-year effort to build the subway. By piggybacking on the BART project (literally, since Muni Metro sits directly above the regional BART subway from Embarcadero to Civic Center stations), that vision finally became reality.

The Muni Metro subway was phased into service a line at a time, starting with the N, using shiny new Boeing-Vertol light rail vehicles (LRVs). The other streetcar lines, the J, K, L, and M, gradually transitioned into the subway under Market Street, with full seven-day, five-line subway operation not commencing until some 30 months later. West of the subway, they continued on the surface tracks previously used by the PCC streetcars. The Twin Peaks Tunnel, opened in 1918, was tied into the subway at Castro Street; temporary ramps allowed the K, L, and M PCCs to keep using the tunnel until the subway was fully opened. (The “temporary” ramps are still there ostensibly for emergency use.)

MIGHT’VE BEEN MAP—SFMTA’s photo archive includes a variety of maps drawn in the 1970s during planning for subway operation. This one shows the five subway lines, but without the extension of the M-line along San Jose Avenue. It does show the J-line extension, along with a tantalizing extension eastward from Church to what looks like a proposed storage facility. Was this Potrero Division? We don’t know; there’s no further information. Also shown are two potential connections between the N and L lines via either Sunset Blvd. or Lower Great Highway (both of which were beaten back by neighborhood opposition). As it turned out, the old Elkton Shops and Ocean Bus Division next to Balboa Park BART Station became the light rail maintenance and storage facility, later named for General Manager Curtis E. Green.

Even before the subway opened, Muni management knew it had a major problem. Every LRV leaving its home next to the Balboa Park BART station could only get to the subway by going over the K-Ingleside line, subject to traffic delays on narrow Ocean Avenue. While there were low-speed crossovers at Van Ness Station that would have allowed J and N trains to avoid going all the way to Embarcadero Station to turn around, these did not function well and delayed other trains in the subway.

As shown in the map above, Muni tried in the 1970s to win public approval of a connection between the L and N lines across the Sunset District to shorten the time (and reduce the labor costs) of getting the trains on its busiest line, the N, out to Ocean Beach to start their runs. But neighborhood opposition defeated that plan. These pull-out J and N trains in the subway added to its poor operational record for more than a decade, until Muni managed to get an extension of the J-line to Balboa Park approved, funded, and built by the early 1990s.

Both J and N LRVs entering and leaving service began using the extension in 1991, with the N cars turning west at Duboce and Church to reach Ocean Beach. Muni did not initially allow passengers to ride along the extension, as it was sandwiched between BART and Muni’s well-served Mission Street corridor, but federal officials, who held the pursestrings, demanded it, and it began carrying passengers in 1993. (When the F-line opened in 1995, its streetcars also began using the J-line to enter and leave service.) The J-line extension is today one of the least-ridden stretches of Muni light rail service, along with the outer end of the M-line, which was likewise extended along San Jose Avenue from its traditional terminal and Broad and Plymouth Streets to facilitate pull-outs and pull-ins and avoid using increasingly congested Ocean Avenue for that purpose. Though little-ridden by passengers, these extensions eased what would have been crippling subway congestion at peak periods by allowing LRVs entering service to avoid a trip all the way to Embarcadero Station just to turn around.

The initial operating plan was to couple LRVs from different lines at the subway portals (K,L, and M cars at West Portal, J and N cars at Church and Duboce). Muni knew that efficient coupling at the portals required the cars from the different lines to get there on schedule. To that end, they constructed a raised right-of-way for the N-line on Judah between Ninth and 19th Avenues, with the goal of extending it to the end of the line at Ocean Beach, and then following up with similar treatments on the outer ends of other lines. But neighbors on that first stretch of Judah complained bitterly of difficulty accessing their driveways, blunting extensions of the special treatment farther west. It took decades for streetcar priority measures to move forward, fitfully, along the lines.

Fighting street traffic often meant schedules weren’t kept, which meant one line’s streetcar would arrive at the subway portal and be forced to wait for the other cars so that a train could be assembled. Riders on the first car would get restless. Inspectors on the scene were instructed to dispatch the first car if its mates hadn’t arrived within two minutes. That single car was thus taking up a slot in the subway intended for two, three, or four cars. The original automatic train control system enforced distance between trains, so losing a coupling opportunity pushed everything back, lengthening waits at the portals. (In PCC days, the Twin Peaks Tunnel had used simpler block signals, which Boston still does, successfully, to this day. Block signals do, however, decrease the train capacity of a subway somewhat.)

COLLECTING DUST—The subway under Market was largely finished by 1975, when this photo was taken at Castro Station. But it took almost five more years to open. SFMTA Archive

At the other end of the subway, the two-track stub terminal at Embarcadero Station was woefully inadequate. Planners called for a train to depart every two minutes, but operators in each car had to change ends and power up. Given the limitations of some of the LRVs’ systems, that proved unworkable. If an operator needed a bathroom break, it got worse. 

To speed up the turnaround, Muni tried having crews “fall back.” A relief crew would board an inbound train at Montgomery Station and be ready to activate the cabs on the other ends of the train cars as soon as they reached Embarcadero Station. The crew that brought the train inbound would stay on outbound until they got back to Montgomery, there getting off to join a “pool” of operators waiting for more inbound trains. But the trains were different lengths, and assigned to different routes. It did not work well, leading Muni to abandon the coupling plan altogether and simply feed single cars (or on the busiest lines, already-coupled two-car trains) into the subway as they arrived at the portals. 

The Boeing cars proved notoriously unreliable and maintenance-intensive in both San Francisco and Boston, far more than the PCCs they replaced. Boston had gotten its Boeing LRVs first and was furious with the poor quality, cannibalizing 35 cars for parts and refusing the final 40 cars in their order. In San Francisco, the failure of the portal coupling to work as anticipated effectively lowered subway capacity, which meant Muni didn’t have enough LRVs to meet demand. With no near-term alternative available, Muni bought 30 of Boston’s unwanted Boeings and had them modified. (When they were finally retired, the extreme unreliability of the Boeings made Muni management unwilling to restore any for the heritage fleet.)

DROP TOP—PCC 1105 exits the disappearing west portal of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in November 1976. The beautiful original arched portal was demolished so that a light rail station could be built. SFMTA Archive

For a while, to minimize on-street Boeing breakdowns, Muni tried uncoupling the second car of two-car trains at outer terminals after the morning rush hour and sending the extra cars back to the barn, to come back for evening rush. This reduced the service hours of the fleet, but was logistically complicated and didn’t last long. 

Even after coupling in service was discontinued, the subway was backed up more often than not at its eastern end, because of the stub-end bottleneck at Embarcadero Station. Regular commuters whose offices were near Embarcadero Station would ask themselves every day (like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry), “Do I feel lucky?” as they approached Powell Street Station, often opting to walk the rest of the way unless it was raining. The slow turnaround constrained capacity in the evening peak as well. Riders at Montgomery and Powell stations heading outbound (west) would often board trains going the other direction, ride to the terminal at Embarcadero and come back the other way, so they could get a seat or even a place to stand on the jammed trains.

Muni Metro turnaround

Muni moved to address these problems by reviving the idea of an underground loop, but it was a daunting engineering task, since BART was already built and operating just six feet below, and the ground east of Embarcadero Station was below the water table and riddled with old shipwrecks. Deputy Mayor Doug Wright (later chair of Market Street Railway’s board of directors until his passing in 2014) spearheaded a move to bring some of the trains to the surface on the Embarcadero, three blocks south of Market, and turn others in pocket tracks along the way, minimizing the footprint of the work and getting it away from the BART tubes as quickly as possible. This reduced the number of trains reversing at Embarcadero Station while offering the considerable extra benefit of providing LRV service along the sleepy southern Embarcadero, spurring a frenzy of development that included thousands of residential units and a new ballpark for the Giants. The “Muni Metro Turnback Project,” which ended up costing more than $200 million, fully opened in 1998.

RAISING UP—Muni built a ten-block stretch of raised trackway on Judah Street between Ninth and 19th Avenues as the first step to helping N-line trains get to the subway portal more reliably. But neighborhood opposition stopped further phases. SFMTA Archive

At this point, having won permission from the Feds to retire the troublesome Boeing cars early, Muni was in the midst of a transition to LRVs designed expressly for San Francisco by Ansaldo Breda of Italy. This was coupled with installation of a new “moving block” automatic train control system (ATCS) intended to boost subway capacity. 

Both projects were fraught with problems. The ATCS system was unreliable and incompatible with the Boeing cars, which were supposed to be retired by the changeover but couldn’t be because of problems with the Breda order. (Many of the Boeings had to be expensively retrofitted to keep operating.) The Breda cars were also far heavier than the Boeings, forcing earlier-than-planned replacement of surface tracks and garnering complaints from neighbors about their noise and vibration. To top it off, they were not significantly more reliable than the Boeing cars, and needed multiple upgrades and retrofits throughout their lives.

PAST MEETS FUTURE—Muni’s light rail vehicles aren’t all that light, and have worn out the tracks much faster than the older streetcars. In 2012, Muni had to replace the 1970s double-wye at Church and Duboce, taking J and N cars into the subway. To check the gauge, they used Work Car C-1 (restored to its original 1916 appearance by Market Street Railway volunteers). SFMTA Archive

The first day of the new ATCS system and full use of the Muni Metro turnback, in 1998, was a spectacular and total failure, dubbed the “Muni Metro Meltdown” by the press. Subway service gridlocked, leaving passengers to force open doors in mid-tunnel to escape. Serious subway problems persisted for days and have lingered on and off ever since. Periodic electrical and mechanical failures such as stuck switches and downed overhead wires have stopped the subway cold numerous times, reviving the “Muni Metro Meltdown” tag. (One recent one, in 2019, is said to have caused Mayor London Breed to eject SFMTA head Ed Reiskin, and downed subway wires aborted the subway restart early in the tenure of his successor, Jeff Tumlin.)

As if having five lines jammed into a subway weren’t enough, Muni added a new one, the T-Third, in 2007. It was routed into the Market Street Subway at the Embarcadero Portal until the new Central Subway, running north-south under Fourth and Stockton Streets, opens. That was supposed to happen in late 2018, but it’s now more than three years late.

Initially, Muni tried terminating T-line trains at Castro Station using a crossover there. The idea was to give subway riders more trains through the most heavily used part of the subway. But Muni could not make it work operationally, delaying other trains in both directions as the T-trains switched back. In less than three months, Muni gave up on the Castro terminal idea and combined the T line with the venerable K-Ingleside, creating its longest streetcar route since the old interurban 40-line to San Mateo was abandoned in 1949, stretching more than fifteen miles from the city’s southeastern corner to the Balboa Park BART Station in a giant fishhook-shaped route. (The two terminals of the KT-line are less than three miles apart via Geneva Avenue.) This exceedingly long line led to more erratic arrival times at the tunnel portals (the T shares the portal at Folsom and the Embarcadero with the N-Judah), but at least it eliminated switching back in the subway itself, which Muni has always had trouble making work.

FOLSOM PORTAL—A light rail vehicle enters the Market Street Subway through the portal at Folsom Street and The Embarcadero, while E-Embarcadero PCC Car 1010 glides north toward the Ferry Building in 2017. MSR photo

The persistent congestion in the subway led to many trains stopping in the tunnel between stations during rush hours in particular, since the ATCS only allowed one train to stop in a given station at a time. But the downtown stations, built to BART platform lengths, could easily accommodate two trains at once. In the mid-2010s then-Muni head John Haley promised to institute two-train simultaneous stops to mollify outraged passengers repeatedly stuck in the tunnels, but Haley could not get it to work reliably.

Will less be more?

Throughout the 40 years of Muni Metro history, some armchair transit wonks, as well as actual professional planners, have been insisting that the core problem is that even five lines trying to use the same subway is at least two too many, although several cities in Europe have arrangements like this that work effectively. The most common recommendation of these folks is to take at least the J and K lines out of the subway, and maybe the L as well, leaving the highest ridership M and N lines underground.

That approach is precisely what Muni implemented on August 22, 2020, when they tried to restart the subway. LRVs on the J-line turned back on the surface at Church and Market, with riders told to transfer to the remaining subway lines at Church Street Station below. Riders on the outer ends of the K and L were forced to do the same at West Portal, with those trains interlined as the KL all-surface operation between the Zoo and Balboa Park. To avoid trying to turn the T-line around in the subway again, it was interlined with the M-line, an even longer route than the old KT. The MT and the N lines, both running two-car trains, were joined in the slimmed down subway by a new S-Shuttle line, operating in the subway between Embarcadero Station and West Portal Station. The S was slated to eventually have three car trains, to accommodate riders transferring from the J, K, and L surface lines. 

WEST PORTAL TODAY—New Siemens LRVs test at West Portal Station in 2018. Muni has spent many millions of dollars trying to increase subway capacity with modifications such as crossovers just east of here, inside the tunnel, to allow shuttles to augment through service. Progress has been fitful at best. MSR photo

This brave new subway world fell apart after just a weekend of operation when overhead wires started to come down in the subway, and an operations center worker tested positive for Covid-19, forcing a quarantine of other key personnel. Muni scrambled to restore bus service on the lines, and the subway stayed closed until May 15, 2021, more than a full year after its initial shutdown. Meantime, riders continued to pile on buses for surface rides.

When the subway did reopen, it was with the N, the M and a reconnected KT, plus intermittent shuttles. The L remained a bus running over Twin Peaks and down Market Street, a function of a four-year rebuilding of Taraval Street, not scheduled to be finished until 2024. The J remained as a shortened surface LRV (light rail) line to Duboce and Church, causing frustration among some J-line riders who hated the forced transfer and wanted their single-seat ride to downtown back.

SFMTA leadership, including top boss Jeff Tumlin and Muni’s top official Julie Kirschbaum, are committed to keep trying to improve the subway. They are trying to fund replacement of the current, badly flawed, second-generation automatic train control system (ATCS) to increase capacity and reliability, but if the past is prologue, completion of such a system could be at least ten years down the road.

Even with that, they deeply believe that the inherent shortcomings of the subway they (and several generations of leaders before them) inherited can best be mitigated by keeping the J on the surface, and they said so to their board of directors on December 7, 2021. But an organized group of J-line riders and transit activists flooded the public comment period of the meeting with passionate calls to put the J-line back in the subway, and that — for now — is what the board decided to do. At the same time, board members showed enthusiasm for a possible future conversion of the J-line to historic streetcars, as a way to maintain that single-seat ride while keeping the subway unclogged.

Can PCCs play a role on the J?

Muni’s oldest surviving streetcar line, opened in 1917, the J used PCC streetcars exclusively from 1957 to 1982. And not just then. During the Historic Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, PCCs occasionally ran along the J to its then 30th Street terminal. Later, one month after the permanent F-line opened, in October 1995, Muni shut the Market Street Subway down at 10:00pm to facilitate installation of the second generation automatic train control system. (Despite the early start every night, the job still took three years.) Four lines got substitute buses for the last few hours of daily service, but the J-line used PCCs instead, sharing Market Street’s surface tracks with F-line cars. It was a successful substitution. And of course, PCCs operate along the surface portion of the J-line every day, on their way into and out of service on the F-line. And while they are on J-line trackage, they are in regular service to pick up and drop off passengers at any J-line stop (although most riders don’t know this and some operators — against the rules — still refuse to do it). So, PCCs are already at home on the J.

SAVED BY THE F-LINE—One of the subway’s periodic meltdowns drove thousands of riders to the surface of Market Street on April 26, 2019, there to board F-line streetcars and Muni buses to get to their destinations. MSR photo

Extending the J-line downtown on the surface cannot be done with the LRVs, which use pantographs on their roofs to collect electric power from the overhead wires. These would foul the overhead on Market, which is set up for use with trolley poles, as Muni’s vintage streetcars have, as do its trolley buses. (It’s doubtful trolley poles could be installed on either the Breda or newer Siemens LRVs, given their roof configurations.)

Market Street Railway has been asking for a demonstration project using PCCs on a surface J-line for many years now, and the idea has attracted many enthusiastic adherents, including some on the SFMTA board, which directed management to study what’s needed to start up such a service. There’s no immediate plan to do so; the board made it clear that they want options in the event that putting the J back in the subway slows down service for the vast majority of subway riders who ride the other underground lines.

What’s to come?

No one knows how long it will take for ridership in the Muni Metro subway (or anywhere else on Bay Area transit) to return to pre-pandemic levels. In November 2021, the Muni system was carrying only half the daily passengers it carried in 2019. Many large downtown employers have told their workers they can work from home indefinitely, and some are giving up large chunks of their office space. Retail vacancy rates downtown are at historically high levels, driven by a combination of Covid and the accelerating gravitation toward online shopping. And as long as Covid infections and hospitalizations continue, some percentage of past transit riders will opt for the perceived security of their automobiles.

Yet the Market Street subway is a multi-billion dollar public asset. It would in all likelihood not be affordable to build today. The access it provides, the connections it enables, will foster new businesses and help fill up office and retail vacancies along the corridor it serves. In that way, it will be a key to San Francisco’s future vitality.

The current depressed ridership level actually gives Muni the opportunity to test different arrangements of its rail service and see what works best to meet the long-term needs of all San Franciscans – if some activists can get away from the mindset that routes and frequencies must be returned to exactly the way they were before the pandemic. Ridership patters definitely are different now, and in some areas at least they won’t snap back to the old days, just as parts of the City changed forever after the cataclysm of 1906.

J-OK?—Muni’s quiet PCC streetcars, like Car 1009, fit the scale of the J-line’s Noe Valley neighborhood very well, as residents see daily when the cars roll along Church into or out of F-line service. Market Street Railway supports putting PCCs on the J to provide riders with a single-seat ride downtown, if returning current J-line LRVs to the Muni Metro Subway doesn’t work well. Justin Franz photo

The decision of the SFMTA board of directors to return the J-line to full subway service with LRVs may work well, at least until the L-Taraval comes back as a rail line after the rebuilding of Taraval Street is finished. At that point, if the subway is back to its pre-pandemic pattern of delays and snarls, trying PCCs on the J makes a lot of sense. The other lines in the Muni Metro subway operate underground, free from traffic, for much greater distances than the J (the N through the Sunset Tunnel, the K, L, and M through the Twin Peaks Tunnel). Thus, replacing them with surface vehicles would greatly increase travel times for their riders.

By contrast, operating the J-line on the surface might actually be quicker for riders to many destinations along Market Street. What actually counts for people is total travel time, not just time spent on Muni vehicles. J-line surface streetcars would share the F-line stops, which are more frequent than subway stops. This allows riders to leave the streetcar closer to their actual destination in most cases, and avoids the need to climb up from the subway platform to a street entrance. With automobiles banned from Market Street east of Van Ness, Muni buses and F-line streetcars using Market have speeded up their trips considerably. All this means that J-line surface streetcars should be time-competitive at least as far east as Civic Center or Powell Street, and when the subway is jammed up, competitive in total travel time even to lower Market.

Competitive travel times along Market, and the popularity of the PCC streetcars, with their upholstered, forward-facing seats and timeless style, might help rebuild J-line ridership by providing an attractive public transit experience along the J-line.

As the Market Street Subway moves into the next phase of its existence, it’s definitely worth fully exploring this idea. After 40 years of failure trying to jam so many lines into a single subway, it may well be that less is more.

We at Market Street Railway not only work to preserve and support historic transit in San Francisco, we also research and write about how transit has shaped our city in the past – for better or worse – so that these lessons might be applied to make informed decisions for the future. We would appreciate it if you could join or donate to our nonprofit.

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