Muni to consider PCC streetcars for future J-line service

At its December 7 meeting, the SFMTA Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution directing Muni management to evaluate using PCC streetcars to provide single-ride service long-term on the J-Church line. The action was part of a broader measure that instructs management to return J-line light rail vehicles to the Muni Metro Subway as soon as possible.

The action does not mean that the J-line will get vintage streetcar service anytime soon (other than the historic cars that use the J-line along Church Street to reach and return from their daily F-line service; they are mandated to pick up passengers along the way). But it does open the door to something Market Street Railway has been advocating for years: the serious consideration of surface J-line service on Market Street as a way to unclog the Muni Metro Subway.

Before the pandemic, the Muni Metro Subway under Market Street often faced delays, frustrating passengers. Management said this was because there were too many different lines — the J, K, L, M, N, T, plus shuttles — trying to use the same tracks and stations. When Muni resumed rail service after a year-long pandemic shutdown, management implemented a plan they had been considering before the shutdown: make the J a surface line that ended at Duboce Avenue and Church, forcing riders heading downtown to transfer to the Metro Subway or the N or F lines at surface stops.

Management told its board at the December 7 meeting that the Metro subway was operating far faster without the J (and the L-Taraval, which will use buses for another two years during complete rebuilding of Taraval Street). Management’s preferred alternative continued the surface J-line LRV shuttles between Balboa Park and Duboce Avenue during daytime, but as a compromise move to restoring full-time J subway surface, proposed to extend J trains through the subway to Embarcadero station during evenings. They also proposed adding a half-hourly bus on the J from 30th Street (the line’s original streetcar terminal from 1917 to 1982) to the Ferry Building, making the same stops as the F-line.

Market Street Railway had already proposed to management using PCC streetcars instead for this supplemental service on the surface of Market. We shared our views with SFMTA board members before the meeting, pointing out that buses can’t use the scenic J-line right-of-way between 18th and 22nd Streets and would have to make stops in different locations, disadvantaging mobility-impaired riders and confusing all riders. PCC streetcars would, of course, make the same stops as LRVs running shuttles on Church.

After taking testimony from dozens of citizens, most of whom advocated for returning the J to the subway immediately, the board voted to do just that early next year. But they added a big caveat: if, as ridership on the Metro lines returns to pre-pandemic levels, the subway starts getting delayed again, management must consider converting the J-line to be all-surface to the Ferry, running PCC streetcars, like the one pictured above, on the J, instead of LRVs (whose pantographs cannot use the overhead wires on Market). The J-line PCCs would share tracks with the F-line on Market to provide J-line riders a single-seat ride downtown. And the board wants management to figure out what’s necessary to do that right away, and report back early in 2022.

PCC streetcars are already at home on the J-line, rolling along Church Street every day on their way to and from their assignments on the F-line. Justin Franz photo

Management had already volunteered to study this possibility. Market Street Railway has offered to provide background on the way surface J-line service operated in the past. We also plan to closely monitor the study, to ensure that it is unbiased and doesn’t include unrealistic requirements. The fact is that the track and wire required are all in place for a startup, with efficiency improvements possible with some straightforward changes to switches and the like.

To be clear, as an organization focused on the historic vehicles, Market Street Railway does not take a position on whether the J should be in or out of the subway. But we do apply facts and data to help decision-makers in their deliberations.

In this case, we will be looking at how long it would take J-line riders to get from destinations along Church Street to destinations along Market Street. We know the running time of the F-line on Market Street has decreased since automobiles were banned; it’s a much faster trip than in the past. Also, staying on the surface with a single-seat J-line PCC ride avoids the delay of either transferring from an LRV to another Muni vehicle at Church and Market/Duboce (a currently required) or waiting for a slot to enter the subway at Duboce Portal (as is the case with J-line Metro service).

It may be that door-to-door, the surface single-seat J-line PCC service would be faster than other alternatives at least as far east as Union Square.

Again, PCC service on the J is still just an idea, though today’s SFMTA board action brings that idea closer to reality. With E-line service indefinitely suspended because of low demand and ample current LRV service on the southern Embarcadero, the J-line possibility provides an exciting alternative for highest and best use of the vintage streetcar fleet. There are enough vintage streetcars in the fleet now to serve both the F and the J to a 30th Street terminal, and there are 12 more unrestored but complete PCCs in storage that could expand the fleet in the longer term, if demand warrants.

The study may well show J-line PCC service is a realistic possibility for the future, gaining more value from Muni’s fleet of historic streetcars, and potentially speeding service for the remaining lines in the Muni Metro subway as well.

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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“Better Market Street” keeps shrinking; less disruption likely for F-line

More than ten years ago, the City proposed a modest project to repave downtown Market Street. Planners got involved; advocacy groups pushed to add more features; city departments weighed in with wish lists, all saying, “If you’re going to that that, you should also do THIS.” The project metastasized into a full rebuilding of everything on and under the street from curb to curb, from the foot of Market to Octavia Street, more than two miles.

Every inch of the project area has F-line tracks. And the time those tracks would be torn up kept getting longer, cutting off businesses along Market Street from the riders the popular streetcars bring to them. It was looking like just the first phase of work – three blocks of Market – could sideline the F-line streetcars for up to four years; the whole project could impede F-line service on Market 15 years or even longer, effectively killing the F-line on Market Street for a generation.

F-line PCC 1061, honoring Southern California’s Pacific Electric, at Powell and Market, July 10, 2021. Chance Vonb photo from our Facebook Group.

But now, after community pushback organized by Market Street Railway, the project has been reduced in scope for the second time, bringing it back closer to that initial repaving job (which is desperately needed now). A key to the change of heart on city leaders’ part was their recognition that now is not a good time to completely tear up our main street just as businesses affected by the project are struggling to recover from the pandemic.

On July 13, the project’s manager, Cristina Olea of the Department of Public Works (DPW), told the City’s Board of Supervisors (acting in their role as the governing body of the County Transportation Authority) that the already-reduced scope of the project’s first phase (between Fifth and Eighth Streets), with up to four years of no F-line west of Powell Street, was now off the table. She said the leaders of the three agencies involved, DPW, SFMTA (Muni), and the Public Utilities Commission, had listened to community concerns and asked for alternatives with less disruption to the F-line and to businesses along the route.

Two alternatives were put forward as information, with a decision still to come. Alternative one, called “Safety, Accessibility & Streetscape”, shown below, makes various improvements to the street surface but does not replace the F-line tracks, which Market Street Railway believes still have 20+ years of useful life remaining. F-line disruptions would be limited to short periods, usually weekends, for repaving intersections and running conduit for new traffic signals. The 500-foot stretch between McAllister and Seventh Street, where the much-needed F-line loop to provide extra service will be constructed) is shown on the drawings as Phase 2, but Olea stated that SFMTA engineers are now proceeding with detailed design for the loop, and it is possible that part or even all of it could be built at the tail end of Phase 1, which she estimated would now take two years instead of the previously estimated four years.

The second alternative, estimated to cost $60 million, would add transit and utility upgrades between Seventh and Eighth Streets, including underground utility replacement, F-line track replacement, and new, longer and wider Muni boarding islands, with Muni buses currently using the curb lane relocated to share the track lane with the F-line streetcars in that block. This option would in fact require a shutdown of F-line streetcar service west of Powell for two years. The chair of the Transportation Authority, Sup. Rafael Mandelman, expressed skepticism at Alternative 2, below, suggesting city agencies rethink the whole project scope beyond the basic improvements of Alternative 1 given the impacts of the pandemic.

In response, SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin said Alternative 2 would provide city agencies with a test bed to see how new curb lane treatments to improve bicycle safety and discourage (now illegal) private motor vehicle use might work. Tumlin said it would also give the city agencies a better idea of just how complex the replacement of water and sewer lines would be.

In public comments at the meeting, Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher expressed MSR’s preference for Alternative 1, involving the least disruption to the F-line. Regarding Alternative 2, he suggested that the block between Seventh and Eighth would not provide a true test of what it takes to replace the complex web of underground utilities beneath Market, because that block has a BART/Muni Metro station beneath the surface, meaning that all underground utilities in that block were replaced 50 years ago and are just half as old as those under the sections of Market Street where BART was tunneled rather than built from the surface down. Further, the location of the utilities above BART stations is well documented, unlike the parts of Market where BART construction didn’t affect existing utilities. If City leaders decide that a trial block of utility replacement is necessary, Laubscher suggested the block between Sixth and Seventh, with older underground utilities. The F-line loop switches and crossings on Market could be installed as part of the work on this block, eliminating the need for a separate shutdown to do that work later.

Hanging over the entire discussion: what many observers are calling “Van Mess” – a similar project to install bus rapid transit lanes and replace underground and above ground utilities along a two-mile stretch of Van Ness Avenue, which is about the same width as Market Street. The Van Ness project has gone way over schedule and budget. That project’s team has blamed the delay on finding unexpected utilities and other things underground, complicating utility replacement. The Van Ness project is still going on, and will end up taking twice as long as projected and costing tens of millions of dollars more. The ongoing delays caused several small businesses on Van Ness to go under, even before the pandemic.

One of the surprises found last month during construction of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project: the old crossing of Muni’s H-line streetcar on Van Ness with the California Street cable car, buried under pavement for more than 65 years. The segment at lower right has been preserved. Matt Lee photo.

But even though the utility problems under Van Ness were discovered at the beginning of that project, four years ago, the Market Street project team somehow waited until the last minute to translate those learnings into a greatly increased estimate of how long Market would take. And they still haven’t explained why it would take four years to do three blocks of Market when even with delays, they’re doing two miles of Van Ness – a project five times longer than those three blocks of Market – in not much more time than that.

We at Market Street Railway agree with those, including Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents mid-Market, that City agencies need to step back and consider a new vision for Market Street that recognizes the financial realities of the city and the impacts of travel and land use patterns altered by the effects of the pandemic. Even more important, we ask that city leaders study other cities with old utilities and surface streetcar tracks to identify faster and less disruptive ways to perform replacement projects. There are scores of cities in Europe alone that could provide good case studies, and Jeff Tumlin, as an experienced global transportation consultant with myriad connections in the industry, is the perfect leader to bring these lessons home to San Francisco.

The final decision on which alternative to pursue needs to be made in the next few weeks, according to project manager Cristina Olea, to keep some federal funding from expiring. The heads of SFMTA, DPW, and PUC will collectively make that decision, Olea told the Supervisors at the TA meeting, but SFCTA Chair Mandelman advised that they pay attention to community concerns about disruption. We at Market Street Railway believe that as our economy struggles to recover and attract visitor dollars back to San Francisco, it’s essential that the F-line keep running its whole route. We will keep you up to date on developments.

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Longer F-line hours start June 26, from 7 a.m.-10p.m.

F-line streetcars will operate almost twice as long every day, from 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., starting Saturday, June 26.

This represents a huge expansion of the eight-hour-a-day service schedule implemented when the F-line returned to service on May 15, following a 13-month pandemic-caused absence.

The vintage streetcars have been very popular since their return, with service that started around midday and ended before sunset. The expanded hours will allow many more San Franciscans and visitors to enjoy the service between the Castro District and Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street and The Embarcadero as they work, shop, dine, and play in our newly-reopened city.

“We salute SFMTA leadership for moving quickly to meet the clear demand for longer F-line service hours,” said Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, an advocacy and support group for the historic streetcars and cable cars. “They listened to merchants along the line, from Castro to the Wharf, saw the popularity of the streetcars as soon as they returned, and took decisive action, in time to serve the increasing numbers of visitors coming to town and San Franciscans resuming their daily routines. Well done.”

Muni chief Julie Kirschbaum made the announcement to a Muni youth advisory group on June 21.

This good news follows Mayor London Breed’s announcement that cable car service will resume in August with free rides on the Powell-Hyde line for those same service hours, 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. The free service amounts to a “soft launch” of the cable cars following what will be a 16-month shutdown for them. Fares will be collected starting in September, and the other two lines, Powell-Mason and California Street, will resume service at a later date as operators and other resources become available.

These service expansions leave both the F-line and cable cars several hours short of their pre-pandemic daily operating hours. The hours and levels of cable car service were actually written into the City Charter by voters 50 years ago following persistent attempts to reduce service, but the emergency declaration under which city government is still operating allows this flexibility. F-line service hours and levels don’t have Charter protection and have always been set by rider demand, resource levels, and other operating considerations, the same as other Muni bus and light rail routes.

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Welcome back, F-line!

San Francisco’s famed (and much missed) F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line is carrying happy passengers again. Regular service began on Saturday, May 15, with Boston PCC 1059 the first car to reach Fisherman’s Wharf, followed by Detroit 1079, as documented below by Matt Lee. As a bonus, the four-block loop through the Wharf from Pier 39 to the fishing fleet’s harbor at Jones Street, was back in service after having been shut down in Fall 2019 for construction on Jefferson Street, as shown in the photo above, by Jeremy Whiteman, featuring Philadelphia PCC 1055.

All the cars on the line have been fitted with new protective plexiglas barriers for the operators. Eighteen PCCs have been fitted out so far, sufficient to handle the 12-car schedule for the eight-hour-a-day initial service. Because of continuing federal regulations, all passengers had to wear masks, as on all transit lines in the country. Capacity was constrained by social distancing requirements. Within those constraints, the cars enjoyed healthy crowds, which can be expected to grow as more people become aware that the sleek streetcars are back on track.

All along the six-mile route, the PCCs brought smiles to passersby. The cars all carried American flags, plus special flags commemorating the F-line’s return, installed early that morning in dreary drizzle at Cameron Beach Yard by our dedicated volunteer flag master Joe Hickey, MSR board Vice Chair James Giraudo (who donated the flags) and MSR President Rick Laubscher.

Our San Francisco Railway Museum reopened along with the streetcar service and did a bustling business its first day. James Giraudo snapped this pic of museum manager taking down the “closed” sign after 13 months. The free museum’s interim hours are Noon to 5 pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We expect to expand those days and hours as visitors and office workers return to the city.

The first day of operation followed a midday celebration on Friday outside our museum, led by Mayor London Breed, who praised the restart of the F-line as proof that “San Francisco is back!” She then boarded her favorite streetcar, the 87-year old Blackpool, England “Boat Tram” 228, and tooted up The Embarcadero, briefly sharing operating duties with expert motorman Angel Carvajal.

After her turn at the controls, the Mayor waved to passersby, repeatedly announcing, “We’re back!” and “Time for fun again!”, delighting the invited guests on the boat, including SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin and MSR board Chair Carmen Clark.

Hoodline published a comprehensive look at the celebration, including great boat pix and videos. Here’s a link to the Examiner’s coverage, including a photo of the all-but-invisible protective operator barrier on the PCC. Finally, a link to Channel 2’s coverage, including video of the whole celebration.

The weather was not unfamiliar to the boat, which spent decades cruising along the foggy, chilly Irish Sea coast in its first home, and besides, nothing was going to dampen the celebratory spirits of having the F-line back. Perhaps the best comment of the celebration day came from speaker Joseph Ahearne, owner of El Porteno in the Ferry Building, a purveyor of wonderful empanadas. Mr. Ahearne described the financial struggles his family faced because of the pandemic, and emphasized how important the return of the F-line is to small businesses it serves, and how special it is to San Franciscans and the city. “The cable cars belong to the world, but the F-line streetcars are ours, and we love them.”

To help welcome back the F-line, we have designed and printed these advertising cards now posted in all the PCCs and available for purchase at our museum.

And while they last, we’re giving out free commemorative stickers, with five individual streetcar images, designed by our board member Chris Arvin, and our 2021 calendars (one sheet per visitor please) at the museum, May 20-22.

Thanks for everyone for all the hard work in making the return of the F-line a big success. Special thanks to the Muni streetcar maintenance team, shop workers, led by Doug Lee, Louis Guzzo, and Jesse Guthrie, with Joseph Flores, Dick Lui, Paul Rullhausen, and Kevin Sheridan on the front lines with their groups getting those required protective barriers designed, fabricated, and installed in record time, in-house! 

Also very special thanks to the “PCC Committee”, an ad hoc group of F-line operators who love the streetcars and advocated at the grass roots level for their return, along with providing invaluable advice on the design of the barriers. The group is led by Transport Workers Union Local 250A President Roger Marenco, who also effectively led outreach to elected officials and SFMTA leadership to build support for the streetcars’ return. The PCC Committee includes operators Aleena Galloway (who spoke for the group at the Mayor’s celebration), John Caberto, Garry Coward, Mike Delia, David Gunter, Forrest Hareford, Eric Lawson, Ryan Lee, Roderick Mills, Juel Rice, and Jacqueline Robinson.

Come take a ride on the F soon to show your support and enjoy the reopening of San Francisco! Great restaurants and shops await you all along the line. And until you can ride in person, you can again follow exactly where the F-line streetcars are when they’re in service with our great live map, created by our board member Kat Siegal.

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F-line to return in May, Hyde cable later this year!

Mayor London Breed told a group from Fisherman’s Wharf this morning that F-line vintage streetcar service will return to the full length of the route, from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf, in May. Cable car service on the Powell-Hyde line (only, for now) will resume as early as mid-summer, but many details remain to be worked out and that date could change. There is no word at this point when service on the Powell-Mason or California lines might resume. It is… — Read More

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The 15-Third is back

Though not this exact bus. In a time when many of its well-established lines, including the F-Market historic streetcars (which carried more than 20,000 riders a day) are still suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Muni is adding an entirely new route. No, wait. What they’re doing is reviving the well-known bus line known as the 15-Third, and setting it up kind of like a T-Express, to provide faster service downtown from the Hunters Point neighborhood and points along Third… — Read More

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Cable car on display at Powell & Market

There’s a familiar sound at the Powell and Market cable car turntable, at least some of the time. Thanks to the initiative of the Union Square Business Improvement District and the support of SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, a Powell cable car will be on the ‘table every Tuesday , Thursday, and Saturday for at least several weeks, probably through the holiday season. Covid-19 restrictions have put the cables out of service indefinitely, but at least this is a way to… — Read More

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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,… — Read More

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What’s New is Old

All Muni rail service has been halted since March with selected replacement by buses. Metro lines are now slated to reopen in mid-August, though no date has yet been set for resumption of historic streetcar and cable car service. But Muni Metro will be different when it returns, at least at first. In a bold step, Jeff Tumlin, boss of Muni’s parent SFMTA, and Muni head Julie Kirschbaum are re-imagining Muni Metro for the first time since it opened in… — Read More

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Muni Heritage Weekend postponed

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

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