March 18 is Transit Driver Appreciation Day. Operating transit vehicles is a challenging job, in any environment. The past two years, it has been more challenging than ever in San Francisco, given justified concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus along with all the other issues they encounter every day. In our member magazine, Inside Track, we gave a shout out in 2020 to three vintage streetcar operators, emblematic of the many who show love for San Francisco’s historic transit vehicles and offer their riders great service.
Aleena joined Muni in 1995, the year the permanent F-line opened. She’s passionate about the historic streetcars. Her favorite car to operate, by far: Melbourne 496. Whenever she can get a conductor, she brings the Australian car from Cameron Beach Yard to the waterfront to delight riders. “It’s very durable, number one. It does what you tell it to do. I like the woodwork inside the car, the fact that it’s open and breezy, I like talking to people about the car,” she says. “I’m a people person, so I like being the conductor as well as the motorman. When I’m in a chilling mood, I’m driving, when I’m in a talkative mood, I’m in the back with my megaphone,” she adds with a laugh.
A native San Franciscan, she applied for several civil service positions out of school, passing tests for the police, sheriff’s and fire departments, “but Muni came through first,” she recalls. She first became enamored of trolley coaches, “because they don’t pollute the air,” and operated them for 20 years before moving over to the vintage streetcars. She has been an official of Transport Workers Union Local 250A and continues to serve on safety committees.
Aleena is known for giving detailed announcements to her riders, especially important when she worked the E-line because many riders who board at the Wharf end of the line aren’t aware E cars don’t go up Market Street. On a trip aboard one of the double-end PCCs, she gave very clear and cheerful instructions to riders as the car approached the Ferry Building stop, about how to catch an F-line car up Market, and where her car was headed.
“Communication is the key for passengers to get from point A to B, and it’s also the key to making the system work, when you’re talking to supervisors or managers. It’s very important, and people tend to forget that. And how you talk to people is very important,” she notes. “One other thing I like about the vintage cars is getting to go along the waterfront. It’s just so calming; every day, I’m like ‘I get to do this?’ I just love it.”
In his impeccable uniform and vintage hat, Mike Delia makes the PCC he operates look even more like a time machine. And he went out of his way to make that happen. “I’m from Boston; I was a transit operator there, and I moved here to work for Muni,” he says. “I wanted to drive all the ‘old stuff’ and I’m happy that I landed here and Muni gave me the chance to do it.” He put in his time on buses to gain adequate seniority, “and now I’m on the F-line every day, and I’m thankful for that. It’s unique. I wouldn’t drive anything else at this this point.”
The operator known to many peers and riders as “Mr. Boston” knows his adopted city well. “This is Kearny and Geary and Third Street. Buses to Chinatown and the Avenues,” Mike calls out over the car’s public address system. One thing that distinguishes Mike is his stop announcements, made in his native BAH-stin accent. “The thing about the automated announcement is that every intersection on Market Street is three streets, but they only call out two streets, and they don’t call out transfers, or points of interest, so it helps to have that added information, I think,” he says. (It’s worth noting that Mike’s Boston pronunciation of MAH-kit Street matches the way it was pronounced 80-100 years ago here, possibly because of the large Irish immigrant population in each city then.)
He calls himself fortunate to have a lot of regular riders on his run, and enjoys interacting with them, even though at times it’s a “mixed blessing.” “There’s always going to be some of them that love ya; there’s always going to be some that can’t stand ya. But I’m thankful and blessed to have a good following. Your passengers can look out for you. And they do.”
Mike is aware of the importance of the F-line to businesses along the route. “I have a special fondness for the Castro neighborhood because I’m friendly with quite a few of the business owners there. Like the coffee shops, the deli, I go in there every day, so they’re like fixtures to me. And the residents of the Castro, they certainly appreciate the F-line and what it does, so I’m thankful for that, too.” Mike has also developed a rapport with the beat cops that walk the Castro, who have offered him assistance on a few occasions. “I’m pleased to say we look out for each other, and that’s a step in the right direction—one civil servant helping another.”
Mike loves greeting visitors from other cities, especially railfans. “You can tell what a railfan looks like, right? I’ll ask them, where are you from, you got any questions about the cars, and I thought I knew a lot, some of them know a lot more than me. You try to make it fun for them, the kids especially. Little kids love trains, and if we’re stopped somewhere in a safe location, I might ask them, ‘Hey you want to ring the bell?’ That always makes a little kid’s day.”
Perhaps his greatest experience with a kid came when a family boarded his car, obviously having a trying morning. Turns out they were in San Francisco from New Jersey on a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip for their son. By coincidence, Mike was operating Car 1070, an ex-Newark streetcar in its original livery. He pointed this out and they perked up. He let the boy ring the gong and open the doors at several stops, and it made that family’s day.
Of course, he regularly meets riders from all over the world and often hears from Italians and Australians looking for their trams. “It can be culturally broadening to work on the F-line because you meet all these different people.”
As might be guessed, his favorite PCC is Car 1059, wearing the tangerine and silver Boston Elevated Railway livery. And discreetly tucked away on that car’s interior is a little sticker, saying “Boston Strong!” Just like “Mr. Boston.”
UPDATE: Several months after we published this story in Inside Track, Mike fell ill and has been out on leave. We wish him a full recovery and a return to the job he loves!
David has been with Muni 21 years. Another native San Franciscan and resident, he loves operating the Brussels car. “It’s very smooth. It’s like a Cadillac instead of a Volkswagen. It’s a unique piece of equipment. And I like the unusual.” David’s seniority allows him to choose what was, at the time of the interview, the only pull-out, pull-in run on the F-line schedule, “so I get to operate the special equipment I’m qualified to do”. (On this run, the same operator takes the car from the carbarn, operates it for their shift, and brings it back to the barn. Other F-line runs change operators in front of our museum during the day, allowing the car itself to stay on the line for two operator shifts.)
“Most of your operators on the F-line are good operators. That’s the positive, because you’re working around people who enjoy what they do. They’re willing to work with each other and they’re willing to help each other. That makes you more at ease. And our support team, the mechanics, they’re willing to talk to you when you pull in, and when you’re out on the road, and that helps them repair things that we see as a constant problem every day.” David also gives a shout-out to our museum staff as a resource he can send his riders to with questions, and for the things they do to support the operators. He calls out the museum every time he announces the Steuart Street F-line stop.
Like the other operators we profile here, and the many we’ve talked with on the line, their personal security while operating is an issue to David. All would like to see a more visible presence from uniformed San Francisco Police officers, in exchange for the millions of dollars Muni pays the SFPD for security services every year.
As for what David would like to see in the future? “More use of the cars we don’t get to see often. Bring back the historical operations we used to have where we had vintage cars on the line all day, like Car 1 and others.”
We agree, David, and we’re working on it.
Thanks to all the operators who make the streetcars and cable cars even more special. If you have a favorite operator, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you like our exclusive content, please consider even a small donation to help our nonprofit.