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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A familiar (if brief) clang

Wes Valaris says it warmed his heart. Wes is the cable car superintendent, and in our eyes he’s been doing a fantastic job burnishing the historic aspects of this most historic transit operation. But the test ride he took last Friday (April 17) was unlike anything in his career.

With the cables silent and the cars in the barn for more than a month now, the great maintenance crew has been catching up on a long backlog of restoration and preservation projects for the little cars at the cable car barn in Chinatown (Washington and Mason Streets).

There are hi-tech projects too, believe it or not, including the refitting of required security cameras on cars as they’re repaired. Last Friday, the maintenance team finished replacing the roof of Powell Cable Car 3 (pictured above in normal times at Hyde and Lombard last September). But they couldn’t certify the system until the cable car moved along a line. So they cranked up the Hyde Street cable and made a couple of round trips from the barn to Aquatic Park.

There were only four people on the car to ensure physical distancing, and of course no tourists lined up like they were last September in that photo. No, what greeted the cable car crew along the way were San Franciscans. Walking their dogs. Leaning out of windows. Waving. Smiling. “It seemed to lift people’s spirits,” Wes said. “Just a moment of normalcy.”

More repaired and restored cable cars are going to have to be tested in the coming weeks (just as some of the historic streetcars have been). So, folks along the cable car lines may occasionally hear that familiar clang again. It may be quite a long time until the little cars can come back full time — operator and passenger safety are paramount of course — but these “curtain calls” can remind us that they WILL come back. They’re rarin’ to go!

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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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Status update April 6, 2020

Muni has announced its most drastic system cutback yet, going into effect the next couple of days. Here is their announcement. It includes a map of the routes that will continue to operate and details on why the service is being further reduced.

This follows last month’s shutdown of, first, the cable cars and historic streetcars, on the grounds that operators had no separation from passengers akin to light rail vehicles and most buses. That was followed by the shutdown of the Market Street Subway, substituting surface buses on all the light rail line. Now, with 40% of operators expected to be off work, mostly self-quarantining for safety purposes, Muni service will be cut down to 17 key lines, focused on serving hospitals and other destinations for essential workers.

Last week did see some vintage streetcars on the streets, though not to carry passengers. Some were test runs by the vintage streetcar maintenance team, still hard at work, catching up on various projects. Above, from an “Orange Milano” training on the J-Church line (at Church & 29th Streets), is the first “Lemon Milano” to appear on the streets in more than two years: Car 1807, which has been out of service. The testing revealed it still has a traction motor problem, which is now being addressed.

Another shop test, of Twin City Rapid Transit PCC 1071, in its original Minneapolis-St. Paul livery, on Church Street, on April 3.

Shop trials weren’t the only vintage operations of the past week. On April 1 (no fooling), PCCs 1051 (the Harvey Milk car) and 1055 (in its original Philadelphia 1940s livery) went out the L-line, resulting in this great shot at 35th Avenue and Taraval, with Car 1055 resting “in the hole” of the track wye on 35th, awaiting a road call from maintenance (remember, these cars haven’t been operating in awhile now). These cars were training new streetcar operators, and this piece of training finished last Friday. Next step is line training, involving supervised operation during regular service, which obviously has been put off. The trained operators have been reassigned to buses for the duration.

Before the training was suspended, though, a clean sweep of Milan liveries, with “Mint Milano” 1814 at the L-line terminal at 46th and Wawona, following “Orange Milano” 1815.

Thanks to the photographers who grabbed these shots. They come from our Facebook Group, which is seeing a big increase in activity with great historic photos being posted and discussed. If you’re not a member, here’s the link. Join us!

And special thanks to all the operators and maintainers doing their very best to keep critical Muni service running. We will get through this!

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