Boat Tram Marks Market Street’s New Era

Mayor London Breed (red suit) disembarking from the Boat Tram at Fourth Street after leading the celebration of a car-free Market Street.

Can a tram be entrancing? Sure seemed that way yesterday at the ceremony at the foot of Market Street celebrating the elimination of private automobiles on San Francisco’s main thoroughfare.

After an opening serenade by eight-time cable car bell ringing champ Byron Cobb and a round of speeches that included Mayor London Breed, SFMTA Board Chair Malcolm Heinicke, SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, and several mobility advocates (from Walk SF, the Bicycle Coalition and MSR’s Rick Laubscher), the celebrants boarded the vehicle SFMTA chose to symbolize the new era of Market Street. Not 1912 Car 1, Muni’s flagship streetcar. Not a PCC, the stalwart streetcar of the F-line. But the streetcar that makes everyone smile, Car 228, one of Muni’s two 1934 open-top “Boat Trams” from Blackpool, England.

(L-R) SFMTA Board Chair Malcolm Heinicke, SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, Mayor London Breed, and Boat “Captain” Angel Carvajal pose onboard during a stop.

Might seem like a detail, but it’s important. New SFMTA boss Tumlin said again at the event how much he loves the Boat Trams. He has already said publicly that he hopes to see them operate even more this coming summer than the two-day-a-week operation of last summer.

Then there’s the Mayor. She was guest of honor at our San Francisco Railway Museum ahead of last year’s Muni Heritage Weekend (August 22-23 this year, by the way). We were celebrating the return to the Sacramento-Clay cable car “Big 19”, which she rode — and continued to ride, beyond the pre-arranged place she was to get off. “Just one more block,” she said then.

“Ride with us up to the 30 stop”. Mayor Breed and new friends before boarding the Boat.

This year, same thing. Just before the Boat Tram left the “dock” on Steuart Street, she encountered a group of senior citizens looking on in curiosity. She asked where they were headed; they said ‘Chinatown’, and she responded, “Hop on. We’ll let you off where the 30 bus crosses.” (Love a mayor who knows the routes.) The mayor herself was supposed to get off at Second Street, and the police motorcycles had stopped for that. But the mayor motioned them onward, riding two more blocks to Fourth Street.

Maybe that’s because she was being given impromptu instruction on operating the Boat by ace Muni motorman Angel Carvajal. At the parade beginning, she was invited to step on the air whistle to start the show, and she proceeded to stand next to Angel headed up Market. He told her that Mayors Feinstein and Lee had operated vintage streetcars in the past and asked if she would like to try. She did, with gusto, letting Angel handle the controller while she operated the brake valve, quite smoothly.

Smiles for Miles: Rookie Operator and Instructor Angel Carvajal.

Bottom line: like a lot of “immigrants” over the past century and a half, the Boat Trams have found a lasting home here and are indisputably San Franciscan now. We at Market Street Railway are very proud that we brought both of them to San Francisco as gifts to Muni, and even prouder that they’ve become so beloved, not only by riders, but by SFMTA and city officials as well.

Gradually, we’re seeing more international streetcars making regular appearances on the E- and F-lines. Melbourne 496 (1929) was out in regular E-line service yesterday, while Brussels/Zurich “EuroPCC” 737 (1951) was on the F-line all day. And the boat itself starting picking up regular passengers after the mayor disembarked (at the direction of SFMTA transit chief Julie Kirschbaum), and then operated the rest of the day in regular service.

We do expect regular operation of the Boats this coming summer. We’ll keep you updated on the details. We’ll also be updating you on how car-free Market Street is working out, particularly for the F-line. Here’s a thoughtful piece on the possible challenges from the Chronicle’s urban design critic, John King.

Thanks to Phillip Pierce, Erica Kato, and all the others at SFMTA who make this celebration run as smoothly as, well, the Boat did.

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Great Kickoff to Heritage Weekend

Mayor London Breed (Center, in blue) leads the ribbon cutting that returned cable car “Big 19”, originally built in 1883, back to Muni’s active fleet after a hiatus of 77 years. She was joined by SFMTA Board Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden (second from right) and the team from Cable Car Division responsible for this miraculous resurrection.

Muni Heritage Weekend got off to a great start last night (Thursday), with a VIP reception at our San Francisco Railway Museum. Upwards of 70 invited business, neighborhood, and civic leaders heard Mayor London Breed extol San Francisco’s history and the role transit played in making the city what it is today. Market Street Railway President Rick Laubscher paid tribute to transit pioneers through the decades, whom he described as “fighters for equality, for inclusion, for opportunity”, and lauded the team that brought Sacramento-Clay Cable Car 19 back to life. They include: Project Manager Arne Hansen, the shop superintendent; Electric Transit Mechanic Dave Kerrigan, who installed a complete braking system, Master Carpenter Antoni Cunha, who repaired and strengthened the running boards; Painters Danny Hicks and Henry Pegueros, who did a masterful job of painting, polishing the brass, and detailing the cable car.

Mayor Breed addressing the gathering at the museum. MSR Board Vice Chair Antone Sabella (just to her right) looks on.

That group, and the other guests, then processed from the museum two blocks to California and Market Streets, where “Big 19” was staged on the tail track of the California Street cable car line, ready to go. After a ribbon cutting, featuring Mayor Breed, SFMTA Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden, and the car’s restoration crew, Gripman Val Lupiz, whose personal enthusiasm for the project made a big difference in moving it forward, er, moved the car forward … up California Street, “halfway to the stars”, as the song lyric goes with the Mayor and a packed car of guests happily taking it in.

MSR Board Chair Carmen Clark stands in the grip man’s position aboard Big 19, with the restoration team in front of the car, along with MSR Board Member James Giraudo (far left), who contributed the accurate 46-star American flags for the car (commemorating the 1908 date it started working the Sacramento-Clay line), along with the two Cable Car Division superintendents who greenlighted the project: Brent Jones, now acting deputy director of transit for SFMTA, to the right of the shiny brass headlight, and Wes Valaris to the left of the headlight (in hat), current acting super at Cable Car.

Climbing Nob Hill with a crush load is just about the ultimate test for Big 19, and under Val’s expert hand, it went flawlessly. The Mayor had to disembark at Grace Cathedral for her next engagement…clearly reluctantly, asking to ride at least one more block…and the rest of the guests proceeded to Van Ness, where “Big 19” reversed smoothly.

Gripman Val Lupiz waits for a signal to change as Mayor Breed (over his shoulder) enjoys the ride. Former MSR Board Chair Bruce Agid looks toward the mayor from the far running board.

But then the Cable Car Gods said, “Not so fast”. One block into the return trip, another cable car hit a bumper bar on the California cable, causing the cable to automatically shut down. When this happens, the cable machinery crew carefully winds the entire cable all the way through its length, inspecting it as it goes through the winding machinery at the carbarn to ensure it wasn’t damaged. If it is, the line can be shut down for hours.

And so, guests on this memorable inaugural run of Big 19 got an unexpected experience: one of Muni’s brand new hybrid buses appeared to take them back to the museum, making them the first to make that round trip on transit vehicles built 136 apart.

One more shot of Val Lupiz, on his new favorite cable car. Those who are part of our Facebook group, (Market Street Railway) know Val as a devoted cable car historian whose dedication and enthusiasm has helped both Big 19 and O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde Car 42 spend time on the streets.

Later, the cable was found to be fine, and Big 19 returned to the Cable Car Barn without incident. It will be out and running on Heritage Weekend with a VERY special treat starting at 10 a.m. for those who show up at the Cable Car Barn at Washington and Mason Streets: on its pull-out trip, it will go down the Hyde Street Hill to Aquatic Park, then back up Hyde, around the Washington-Jackson loop, and then over to California Street to go into service. At Heritage Weekend Central Control (the plaza outside the museum), we’ll keep track of where Big 19 is, so visitors can catch one of its several trips from California and Market to Van Ness and back.

That’s just one aspect of what’s going to be a great Heritage Weekend. Don’t miss it.

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