They’re not back yet. At least not for passengers. But the streetcars in Muni’s historic fleet are at least more visible these days where they belong: on the streets of San Francisco.
Muni’s F-line and E-line streetcars have been sidelined for nine months now, victims of the Covid-19-related collapse of Muni ridership. But electric vehicles need exercise to stay in good condition. Streetcars just back from outside contractors or inside maintenance have to be tested. And operators have to be trained or retrained for the day passenger service resumes. (No date set for that yet; Muni still has to install protective plexiglass shields between the operator’s cab and the passenger area. Boston and Philadelphia are already doing this; we have asked Muni leadership again to make this a priority.)
In the meantime, we can at least get a look some of the colorful cars back on the street during the past 30 days, thanks to sharp-eyed photographers who’ve posted to our Facebook group.
On September 1, 1995, a parade of vintage streetcars rumbled westward on Market Street, led by the wildly popular Boat Tram 228, to officially inaugurate the permanent F-Market streetcar line (extended in 2000 to become the F-Market & Wharves).
Right from that opening day, the F-line, inspired by the success of the summer Trolley Festivals of the 1980s, opened, it was overwhelmed with riders, far outstripping Muni’s predictions. Many Upper Market residents preferred the clean, upholstered vintage PCC streetcars, with windows that opened to let in fresh air, to the stuffy subway beneath the street. Shoppers and workers found it not only more pleasant, but easier to transfer to from crossing Muni routes. And visitors by the thousands used it to truly enjoy getting around the city, especially after it reached the Ferry Building, Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
With more than seven million riders a year, the F became America’s most popular traditional streetcar line, even more than long-time champ, the St. Charles line in New Orleans. Muni, encouraged and helped by our nonprofit, tripled the size of the original vintage streetcar fleet, and still had trouble meeting demand.
Now, on its 25th anniversary, the F-line’s future is uncertain. Shut down since March, Muni has set no reopening date, or even a time frame. Indeed, SFMTA boss Jeff Tumlin has hinted the F’s reopening might be contingent on voters passing new funding sources for Muni. That kind of measure couldn’t be on the ballot until June 2022 at the earliest.
We at Market Street Railway believe that the F is too important to the revival of the city’s economy to wait that long. Small businesses and visitor attractions from Castro to Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf are suffering mightily right now; some have already closed forever. Many more cannot withstand such an extended denial of attractive public transit service.
And the vintage streetcars can help in more locations than just the F-Market & Wharves line or the also-suspended E-Embarcadero line. Most people don’t know that one month after the F-line opened, the PCCs provided regular service on the J-Church line late nights for three years, while the subway shut down early to install a new train control system. The other subway lines riders were stuck with substitute buses, but J-Church riders could ride the vintage PCC streetcars straight downtown from Noe Valley via Church and Market Streets, with no transfers. They could do that again now if Muni chooses to, instead of forcing J-line riders to get off LRVs at Market and walk into the subway, as Muni now plans to do when they’re able to re-restart the subway after the first aborted attempt last week.
With your support, we can strengthen our advocacy, which helped turn the F-line from vision to reality a quarter-century ago, to help get the vintage streetcars back in service as soon as its safe to do so.
For the rest of 2020, part of that advocacy will be a celebration of the first 25 years of the F-line with virtual events, including displays of the best F-line photos and a contest to choose people’s favorite streetcars from the fleet. All to remind San Franciscans what a gift the F-line has been to the city, so that we can open that gift again, soon.
For those who want a deeper dive into the history of the F-line, the magazine Railfan & Railroad has an extensive article, with great photos, in its September 2020 issue, authored by Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher. And the definitive reference work on the F-line, including great stories, photos, and inside information, is available in our online store: San Francisco’s F-line, by transit historian and former F-line operator Peter Ehrlich.
In the wee hours of August 2, 1873, Andrew Hallidie gripped the first street cable car in history over a precipice on Clay Street. Hallidie, a Scots immigrant who had extensive expertise in “wire rope” technology to move buckets of ore above ground in the state’s mining district, had applied his knowledge to pull people in little cars up hills that horses couldn’t climb. His franchise for the line had technically expired at midnight on August 1, but there were delays, including the refusal of the gripman he hired to operate the car after taking a look down the hill. So Hallidie did it himself. Apparently, no one noticed that he missed his franchise deadline and even today, the anniversary date is commonly given as August 1. (That first operation, incidentally, was a test. Paying passenger service didn’t start until September 1.)
Hallidie’s invention soon swept the world because even with high capital costs, cable cars were twice as fast as horse-drawn streetcars even on level ground, meaning you could carry more passengers per day. Also, operating costs were lower (horses were very expensive to maintain). But the cable revolution only lasted 15 years until Frank Sprague’s development of the electric streetcar in 1888, significantly faster than cable cars and cheaper to build and run. Cable systems around the world were quickly converted, leaving only those serving steep hills. Buses ultimately took over almost all of those as well. By 1957, San Francisco’s was the only traditional street cable system left in the world. (Check out differences between cable cars and streetcars.)
Today, there’s no special bell serenade or even the clicking of the cable to mark the 147th birthday, because the cable cars are silent, shut down since March because of Covid-19. Muni officials have ruled out a comeback anytime soon, probably until an effective vaccine is deployed, because there is no way to shield the operators from passengers, as is being done on buses and light rail vehicles (and we hope soon on the shut-down historic streetcars as well). Indeed, it is possible that the silenced bells and cables could last longer than any previous shutdown.
In their entire 147-year history, there have only been two extended cable car shutdowns: one, following the 1906 earthquake and fire, which decimated cable car machinery and incinerated many cars, lasted about a year; the other, the complete rebuilding of the system from the dirt up in 1982-84, lasted about 18 months. Given the resurgence and persistence of the virus, the little cars could be off the street longer than that.
We hope not; instead we hope the 148th birthday can be celebrated on the cars themselves, climbing ‘halfway to the stars’! Meanwhile, we will be celebrating cable car history here, with a series of posts on little-known aspects of the little cars.
We’d advise ordering this beauty quickly, including any gifts you want to give; we produced fewer than last year because of the uncertainty of when our San Francisco Railway Museum will reopen, so for now it’s only available online. Here’s the link to our store, if you don’t need any convincing (and why would you, with 13 eye-popping color photos of Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars in action on the streets of San Francisco!) (Tip: you can get it free as a membership benefit. Read on!)
The design continues our traditional attractive layout. The size, 14×10 inches, is designed to keep shipping costs low, but is still plenty large enough to let the photos shine!
The year 2021 marks the centennial of the year our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, took over most of San Francisco transit operations from United Railroads, beginning a fierce rivalry with the young Municipal Railway (Muni) that culminated in the merger of 1944. We pay tribute to our namesake with rare thumbnail photos on the date pages, and a special page celebrating the centennial.
Reminder: if you make an annual membership contribution to Market Street Railway of $100 or more, you automatically get a free copy of the calendar. We will start putting the free calendars for our $100+ members in the mail next week. The US Post Office seems a little less efficient these days, so be patient…even though we ALL want 2021 to get here (because it means 2020 will be OVER!)
Art Curtis passed away on June 20, 2020 at 11:11am. He fought a coura- geous fight with brain cancer, diagnosed in 2018. Art was given three months to live, but willed himself to reach his 80th birthday, and did on June 8! His niece, Kathleen Morelock, informed Art’s many friends of his passing, and shared a dream Art’s sister Kathie had the night before: “Uncle Art came to the bedroom door…took her hand, and they flew together throughout our beautiful… — Read More
Wes Valaris says it warmed his heart. Wes is the cable car superintendent, and in our eyes he’s been doing a fantastic job burnishing the historic aspects of this most historic transit operation. But the test ride he took last Friday (April 17) was unlike anything in his career. With the cables silent and the cars in the barn for more than a month now, the great maintenance crew has been catching up on a long backlog of restoration and… — Read More
The premier vintage transit event of the year, Muni Heritage Weekend, happens September 7-8 this year. Rides will be offered each day from 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. For the first time, this popular event, co-sponsored by SFMTA and Market Street Railway, will kick off San Francisco Transit Week, an event co-sponsored by SFMTA and the San Francisco Transit Riders organization (SFTR). Details are still being finalized, but for Heritage Weekend at least, you can expect, at a minimum, several… — Read More
Our historic streetcars are back at the Beach Yard (formerly Geneva) and this Saturday is decorating day! Both locations are covered facilities, so we will do our magic, rain or shine. We also have been invited to help decorate the Cable Cars at the Cable Car Barn that same afternoon. To join in the fun, you need to sign up at the link below. Here are the details: Beach Yard Saturday, November 24 from 10am-12:00pm. We will meet at 10am… — Read More
UPDATE: The cable cars will remain out of service at least through Sunday, November 18. The deteriorating air quality around San Francisco Bay due to the smoke from the Camp Fire to the north has claimed another victim: the city’s cable cars. Muni pulled all the cable cars into the barn this afternoon (November 15) and replaced them with buses until air quality improves. Forecasters say that could be another week. In a sign of how serious Bay Area residents… — Read More
Because of unforeseen events, Muni Heritage Weekend events will start later and finish later on September 8-9 this year. But there are still going to be very special happenings for transportation fans of all ages. A climate change protest will close Market Street late morning of Saturday, September 8 and a footrace sponsored by the Giants will close traffic lanes on The Embarcadero Sunday morning. Both these events were scheduled after our dates were locked down and there’s really nothing… — Read More
Lots of buzz about the new $2.1 Salesforce Transit Center holding its grand opening Saturday, August 11. For example, this story in the Examiner, worth a read for the historic context. Or this one, about the incredible park atop the terminal. Or this one, about the loonnng delay in getting train service (commuter and high-speed to LA) into the terminal in the afternoon. But in this post, we’re inviting everyone to the new center’s bus deck at 1 pm… — Read More
That’s the title of a great piece by Justin Franz on the Trains Magazine website today. Click the link and read it. It really says everything that needs to be said about the history and popularity of San Francisco’s vintage streetcar operation. Thanks, Justin, for the story, and thanks, Muni, for the dedicated people who run and maintain these treasures. Just to be clear, the headline on Justin’s piece refers to the streetcars themselves, what we call the… — Read More
After four years camping out unprotected at Muni Metro East, just off Third Street in Dogpatch, Muni’s historic fleet moves back to its regular home at Cameron Beach Yard at Geneva and San Jose Avenues in the Excelsior District tonight. On June 21, 2014, the streamlined PCC streetcars were moved out of Cameron Beach Yard, the former Geneva Division, which has housed San Francisco streetcars since 1900. This was done in order to replace all the track across the street… — Read More
Around 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day, the newest PCC streetcar to reenter regular service following a complete rebuilding collided with a large box truck while returning to the carbarn after completing its day’s work on the F-line. The impact knocked the streetcar, No. 1063 (painted to honor Baltimore Transit), off the track and turned the truck on its side. No injuries had been reported by the time this post was made. The streetcar had no passengers aboard at the… — Read More
In transit jargon, the trip to the carbarn after completing the day’s runs is the pull-in. A man who helped revitalize San Francisco’s transit system has unexpectedly — and very sadly — finished his runs, way too soon. Mayor Edwin Lee died suddenly of a heart attack in the early hours of December 12, 2017. He was just 65 years old. Pictured above on a boat tram at the opening of the E-Embarcadero vintage streetcar line in 2015 with then-Supervisor… — Read More