When will the cable cars and streetcars return?

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.

The double-end “Torpedo” PCCs already have a protective barrier for operators, as shown in this 2012 photo with operator Angel Carvajal. The top portion here is open and swung behind his seat. Similar barriers are feasible to install on the single-end PCCs.

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.

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Giving Tuesday: can you help?

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 is hurting our nonprofit in a big way as well. Our San Francisco Railway Museum has been closed for almost two months, and when it does reopen, we expect far fewer gift shop sales from reduced and social distanced visitation. More importantly for San Francisco, there is no date set yet to return the F-line and E-line vintage streetcars to service (Car 1015, shown above, has just returned from a complete rebuilding to better-than-new-in-1948 condition and is being tested on the empty tracks right now to be ready to carry passengers when it’s time). Nor is there a date for returning the National Historic Landmark cable cars to service.

We are focusing our efforts on urging and helping Muni to bring these vehicles back to the streets, in passenger service, just as soon as it is safe for both operators and riders. They are symbols of San Francisco and will be symbols of our city’s recovery.

So, as you give to nonprofits on this Giving Tuesday (or any day for that matter), we hope you will consider donating at least $10 to Market Street Railway, to help the cause of the historic streetcars and cable cars. You can donate here.

Another way you can help us is by picking up some great transit-related merchandise in our online store, including this new t-shirt we designed with PCC 1040, the last streetcar of its designed to be built new in America, 68 years ago.

To all of you who are Market Street Railway members or supporters, thank you for helping us keep the past present in San Francisco.

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Status update, April 15, 2020

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 work continues on individual cable cars. The past week did see some additional operator training on vintage streetcars, as captured in this memorable photo by Traci Cox — memorable in large part because Pier 39 is empty and closed down in what would normally have been a very busy pre-Easter week. (When this ends, we hope you will visit and support Pier 39, because they, and other Wharf businesses, including Ghirardelli Square, Cioppino’s Restaurant, and others, have been generous supporters of our work.)

Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced six critical indicators that would guide his decision on when to modify the state’s lockdown order. He said there is no precise timeline for modifying the stay-at-home order, but from what we’ve seen, it seems clear it will extend at least through the end of May, and likely longer. At that point, transit agencies, including SFMTA, will have to make decisions on when and how to resume various service levels, depending on demand. The governor has said the restart of activity will be phased and gradual. We don’t know at what point cable car or vintage streetcar service might resume, so we won’t speculate, but we will keep you informed here as we get additional information.

Our San Francisco Railway Museum will be closed at least through the lifting of the stay-at-home order, and probably for some time after that. The most likely reopening would be tied to the resumption of F-line streetcar service, but that hasn’t yet been decided. In the meantime, we continue to offer popular items from the museum shop in our online store. Thanks so much to our wonderful museum and operations manager, Alison Cant, for fulfilling incoming orders on a once-a-week basis. She is so important to our organization.

In the meantime, we pass along a message and photo from former MSR board member Steve Ferrario, sent to us on April 9. “Strange days.  Castro end of the F-Line, now terminal for the T buses.  🤨”

Thanks once again to all the SFMTA employees on the job during these most difficult time, maintaining some level of mobility for San Franciscans. Be safe out there!

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Car-free Market Speeds Up F-line

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 65 percent of those trips are now under 15 minutes, according to data he compiled.

San Francisco Examiner, February 26, 2020

The photo above shows the last PCC built in North America (Muni Car 1040) on the first morning of car-free Market, January 29. You’ll note the motor scooter and private car next to it. We’ve seen occasional violations of the car ban, especially at night, but that’s to be expected in the initial weeks. SFPD and SFMTA parking control officers herded strays off the street with a warning; SFPD is supposed to start issuing tickets for violators soon.

As an early and vocal supporter of the auto ban on Market, we’re encouraged by these early results. We thank Chris for his initiative on this.

We continue to push hard to implement the F-line improvements that are part of the Better Market Street construction about to begin, particularly the addition of a short-turn loop on McAllister Street and Charles J. Brenham Place (Seventh Street north), which will allow additional F-line service to be scheduled on the busiest part of the line, between the Wharf and Civic Center (service to Castro would not be affected). The project will also consolidate F-line stops downtown and make them all accessible (several are not).

All in all, it’s a very good start.

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Hear Mayor Art Agnos’ Inside Stories of Embarcadero Transformation March 21

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

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E-line Shuts Down for Two Months Starting Jan. 22

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

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“The bell is charming; the horn works”

  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

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Buses on F-line, No E-line Sunday, June 24

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

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Welcome Back, Harvey Milk’s Streetcar!

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

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“Service Improvement” on the F-line? You decide.

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

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E-line NextBus Map Working!

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

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Buses Back on the F as E Starts Daily Service

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

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“Super Bust 50”

“Super Bust 50” is the headline of the new Castro Merchants monthly President’s Letter by Daniel Bergerac. You can read his entire letter here, but here’s the gist. As the Super Let Down after Super Bowl 50 starts to fade, let’s remember who is going to end up paying the biggest price for Santa Clara hosting this huge sporting event – – we are: local merchants, especially in The Castro.  But, we are not alone, we hear, as local merchant associations all over… — Read More

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F-line, Our Museum Adapt to Super Bowl Week

The foot of Market Street is very different this week. The streetcar tracks have PVC pipes stuck in the flangeways to reduce the tripping hazard for thousands of strollers visiting corporate-sponsored displays where the F-line and Muni buses usually run. Lower Market and the southbound lanes of The Embarcadero in front of the Ferry Building have been turned over to an event called “Super Bowl City”, demoting the F-line streetcars to a Ferry-Wharf shuttle service, with buses taking over for… — Read More

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Hoodline Reports on Our Agenda

The popular San Francisco neighborhood news website, Hoodline, reports on Market Street Railway’s priorities for improving historic streetcar service. We appreciate the coverage and hope it helps move these items closer to reality.  The tremendous popularity of the F-line has made a major impact on service quality, as anyone who tries to ride knows.  We do feel strongly that the line can operate more efficiently than it does and become even more popular with locals, including people moving into the many new residential… — Read More

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