F-line’s 25th anniversary

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.

Until Covid-19.

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.

Beyond its day-to-day popularity, the F-line has been a lifeline for stranded subway riders during “meltdowns” of the underground service, including this one in 2019.

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.

PCCs using the J-line can turn right onto Market from Church. Kevin Mueller photo.

The next issue of our member magazine, Inside Track, will be out later this month, with a full exploration of the challenges — and opportunities — ahead for the F-line, along with a history of the perpetually frustrating Market Street Subway, which has its own anniversary (the 40th!) this year. Sign up here to join Market Street Railway and get this great quarterly publication, not available otherwise.

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.

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