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.
With San Francisco’s historic streetcars still shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t take an actual ride to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the permanent F-Market line, but we can get some virtual thrills with these two new merchandise items, designed by Chris Arvin. Above, a poster with Chris’s iconic, er, icons that playfully visualize some of Muni’s historic streetcar fleet. Below, a pin featuring a PCC in original Muni livery.
More than ever, our nonprofit depends on support from those who love the cable cars and historic streetcars to enable us to strengthen our advocacy to get them back on the streets of San Francisco as soon as it’s safe. Please consider even a small donation or membership. Thanks.
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.
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, produce, and adequately distribute. The article quoted SFMTA head Jeff Tumlin as saying, “The cable cars require the operator to have the most direct interaction with passengers, and we have no way to protect our operators on cable cars.” In our own discussions with current and former cable car gripmen, they agree that any type of Plexiglas barrier to separate themselves from riders would be infeasible. Beyond that, any kind of social distancing among passengers would drive down capacity to single digits per car.
The Examiner followed with its own, longer article, offering more historic perspective on cable car operations through the eyes of MSR President Rick Laubscher. Beyond the cable cars, both articles noted that Muni has not set a timetable to return the historic streetcars to service on the F- and E-lines, either. A Muni spokeswoman, Erika Kato, noted that most streetcars lack the Plexiglass barriers that currently operational Muni buses have.
But that’s a fixable issue. The seven double-end PCC streetcars (Cars 1006-11 and 1015) already have these barriers. The two Melbourne trams, 496 and 916 have operator doors, as does “EuroPCC” (Brussels/Zurich) 737. On the operational Milan trams (about six currently), some hardware is still in place for the Plexiglas barriers that were on those cars when they arrived here from Italy 20 years ago. (Muni removed those barriers.) It would be straightforward to fit Plexiglas shields again.
The bulk of the F-line fleet is the single-ended streamliner “PCC” cars, which have stanchions already installed in the right location behind the operator, requiring only fitting of hardware and plexiglas. It’s our understanding that maintenance and engineering have done some preliminary design work already, and have asked top management whether they wish these shields fitted. But we are not aware of any actual installation work being authorized as of yet.
Muni has the maintenance staff to do this. They’re at work right now, and they have already caught up on the streetcar maintenance backlog during the shutdown (the cars look great; all seats like new, scratched glass replaced, paint touched up).
It’s clear that Covid-19 is going to be in our midst awhile, so it makes sense to have these changes implemented on the streetcars now. If we wait to do this until it’s safe to resume service, it would likely be an additional 3-6 months to get them back on the street. We are actively advocating for this protective word on the streetcars to be done now. When that’s completed, and with the same social distancing guidelines as other Muni vehicles imposed, it would seem there’s no mechanical or health reason the streetcars couldn’t return.
At that point, it would be up to where we as a society stand against the virus, how much ridership has returned, and how important SFMTA and the City consider the needs of the visitor industry in San Francisco among their many competing priorities. But with cable cars likely blocked from returning for a longer time, the F-line in particular will become the transit lifeline connecting Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, Union Square, Civic Center, and the Castro. Operating it with historic streetcars would clearly send a message that San Francisco is committed to retaining its uniqueness and attractiveness to the world.
Today is Giving Tuesday, a day promoted around the world to focus people’s attention on the needs of many kinds addressed by nonprofits. We at Market Street Railway know full well, especially right now, that there are urgent needs everywhere. We hope you’ll be able to spare a little something for charities in San Francisco, or wherever you’re reading this, that are helping with the Covid-19 pandemic or other human needs. We do want to let you know that Covid-19… — Read More
Muni has put into effect the dramatic service cuts we told you about in our last update. Muni is currently operating just 17 core routes (out of 87), all served by buses. No rail service of any kind currently. Given our focus, we won’t discuss details of that here, but if you read the public comments at the bottom of SFMA’s announcement, you’ll see a lively debate. The cable car machinery is completely shut down, though some cosmetic and restoration… — Read More
A new study, plus research by our board member Chris Arvin, shows that the first month of the ban on private automobiles on Market Street is making Muni operations, including the F-line, faster, according to this story in the San Francisco Examiner. For the F streetcar, in particular, the impacts are “really noticeable,” Arvin said. Most morning commute streetcar trip from Ninth and Market streets to First and Market streets took more than 15 minutes. Since the car ban, about… — Read More
Nothing has improved San Francisco more in the past 30 years than the transformation of its waterfront boulevard, The Embarcadero. The city’s mayor at the time, Art Agnos, bucked some strong special interests to achieve the removal of the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway in front of the Ferry Building, replacing it with a surface roadway, pedestrian promenade, and — of course — streetcar tracks. Mayor Agnos was aided in all this by his deputy mayor for transportation, the late Doug Wright… — Read More
Beginning January 22, the E-Embarcadero streetcar line will be completely shut down for approximately two months. The shutdown is related to construction of a new center boarding platform on the T-line to serve the new Golden State Warriors’ arena, Chase Center, on Third Street. Beyond the impact on the E-line, the entire six-mile length of the T-Third light rail line will be converted to bus operation for the same period. Wait, what? That new platform is almost a mile south… — Read More
The headline above is a great quote from a great story in Curbed SF about a dad and his two kids riding every Muni line terminal to terminal this summer. This installment includes the F-line where they rode the newest PCC to return to service following rebuilding, Car 1050 (pictured above in yet another calendar-worthy photo from Traci Cox). The author, Mc Allen, describes rolling along The Embarcadero on the “retro delight” PCC, “exceptionally maintained as rolling museums”. Along… — Read More
The Pride Parade has been San Francisco’s summer kickoff celebration for more than decades now, with huge throngs lining Market Street to watch almost 300 parade units go by. Back in the 1980s, historic streetcars were actually part of the parade, shown here in 1983, as a Blackpool boat tram and Muni’s famed Car 1 participated. The boat tram’s authentic destination sign seemed particularly appropriate. This year, though, streetcars will be completely absent from the parade route, not only for the duration… — Read More
The streetcar honoring Harvey Milk, civil rights icon and transit advocate, was rededicated in a ceremony at the Castro Street F-line terminal on Wednesday, March 15. Car 1051, looking factory fresh, was on display at the spare track next to Jane Warner Plaza while a parade of speakers, led by district Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, paid tribute to Harvey Milk — and to Muni’s parent, SFMTA, and Market Street Railway for their respective roles in keeping the F-line up to date.… — Read More
If you’re riding the F-line this sunny Saturday morning, you’ll find fewer streetcars out there, and longer wait times. But not to worry, it’s a “service improvement.” Who says so? Muni. Muni’s parent, SFMTA, sent out a blog post entitled “More Muni Forward Service Improvements Roll Out”. The F-line is mentioned. But when you click through to the story, it’s, well, a different story. After listing other “improvements” (including cutting back a major crosstown bus line to eliminate transfers to the… — Read More
NextBus, Muni’s vendor for live displays showing where every vehicle is on every route, has launched the full-time E-Embarcadero map. You can now see what’s on both the E- and F-lines by clicking here, then selecting the map you want: F-line only, E-line only, or a combination (as shown in the screenshot above). We thank NextBus (which labels its maps here “NextMuni”) for including the icons (which we supplied them) of the actual streetcars that are on the line, a… — Read More
Today marks the beginning of daily service on the E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line, which will now run daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Fisherman’s Wharf to AT&T Park and the Caltrain Depot along The Embarcadero and King Street. It’s a major service expansion following nine months of the weekend-only service that inaugurated this long-anticipated line. And what greeted the E-line streetcars on their first day of daily service? A too-familiar sight on the original historic streetcar service, the F-line:… — Read More