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.
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.