What might have been

Editor’s note: A version of this story, by the late Cameron Beach and MSR President Rick Laubscher, appeared in a 2003 issue of Inside Track, our member magazine with exclusive stories and inside information about Muni’s historic streetcars and cable cars. Click here to become a member and receive it.

Van Ness Avenue hosted Muni streetcars until 1950. Bob McVay photo, Walter Rice Collection, MSR Archive.

Many streetcar fans believe it was all a plot by fiendish bus builders, tire makers, and fuel providers, forming an illegal conspiracy to rob America of its beloved streetcars after World War II. That conspiracy is why we have so few lines left in San Francisco, they say.

In that time period, so–called “rubber tire interests” did indeed form a company called National City Lines that went around the country buying up private streetcar companies and converting them to bus operation. The buses, tires, and fuel usually came from the companies that owned National City. One such property, in fact, was the East Bay’s Key System. But, even at the national level, this conspiracy theory leaves out lots of realities. Private transit operators failing financially, with no capital to replace worn–out streetcars and track. The baby boom, spurring the development of suburbs well beyond the reach of existing streetcar lines. The flat–out preference of most who could afford it for the automobile, especially after the sacrifices made during the war.

Some of these national factors did impact Bay Area transit. Other factors that shaped San Francisco’s streetcar story were unique.

The Stockton Tunnel was built in 1914 as part of Muni’s original F-line, which ran until 1951. Here’s Car , identical to preserved Car 1, headed for Chinatown shortly before the 30-Stockton trolley bus took over this route. Fred Matthews photo, MSR Archive.

San Francisco’s two major transit systems merged in 1944, when, after numerous failed attempts, voters finally approved a bond issue to allow publicly owned Muni to buy out the larger, private Market Street Railway Company (referred to here as “MSRy” to distinguish it from our organization, “MSR”). The strains of heavy wartime demand were apparent on the cars and tracks of both systems, especially MSRy, which had endured hard financial times well before the war and was not making any significant capital investments in its infrastructure.

As the war neared its end, the City’s transit system was falling apart. Muni owned only five modern streetcars, bought in 1939, out of a combined fleet of almost 500. Most of those cars were completely worn out, as was much of the track and overhead wire they ran on.

The Newton plan

The heavy lines show the streetcar lines that would have been retained under an ambitious 1945 plan by consultant Leonard Newton. Not shown is the 40- interurban line to San Mateo, which Newton also recommended keeping. Click to enlarge.

Muni management knew it needed to modernize once the war ended, so in early 1945, it commissioned a plan for postwar operation from consulting engineer Leonard Newton, a former vice president of MSRy. He understood the poor condition of the cars and track and recommended converting more than half the existing streetcar lines to trolley coach or motor coach operation, including the J-Church and M-Ocean View. However, he did advocate retaining thirteen streetcar routes and reequipping them with modern “PCC” type streamline streetcars (as now run on the F-line). These included eight Muni lines: the B, C, and D, which used Geary, the K, L, and N, which all used tunnels too small for buses, the F-Stockton and the H-Van Ness. Also included were six ex–Market Street Railway lines: 3-Jackson, 4-Sutter, 7-Haight (rerouted via the Sunset Tunnel), 14-Mission, the inner section of the 17-Haight/Parkside line, and the 40 interurban line to San Mateo. All in all, Newton recommended buying 313 new PCC streetcars, which would have been a huge order.

However, while Newton’s report laid out the costs of buying the new vehicles and reconstructing the track, it did not include operating costs, a critical omission. As he predicted in his plan, the end of gasoline rationing sent many Muni riders back to their automobiles again. Even with a fare increase, Muni’s finances were rapidly deteriorating at a time when transit systems were still expected to make a profit.

Two–person crews

San Francisco required crews of two on streetcars and cable cars, though only one on buses. With the merger, Muni now had two powerful operator’s unions to deal with: its own and the one that still represented ex–MSRy motormen and conductors. Both unions were staunchly opposed to reducing crew size, which would have required a City Charter amendment approved by the voters in any event. So Newton repeatedly stated in his report that the new PCCs would be modified for operation by two–person crews, even though a major reason the transit industry designed the PCC in the first place, some ten years earlier, was to cut labor costs in half by only requiring a single operator per car.

Muni’s “torpedoes” never were assigned to regular service on lines where modern equipment might have helped preserve streetcar service, but they did run some routes as charters, giving a taste of “what might have been.” MSR Director Emeritus Walt Vielbaum went along on some of these special charters, and took these great shots. Here, Car 1006 leaves the Stockton Tunnel on the last day of streetcar operation on the F in January 1951. Note the outbound White model 798 gasoline bus with the F designation in the rear window. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Two years after Newton’s plan came out, the City worked up another plan in conjunction with a $20 million bond issue to modernize Muni. By this time, the proposed vehicle mix had tilted sharply toward buses. The labor cost differential clearly played a major part. The bond issue passed, but the money was almost all spent on hundreds of new trolley coaches and motor coaches used to convert former streetcar lines. Had there been enough money right after the war to buy a full fleet of PCC cars, at least for the core streetcar lines, the public might have embraced their comfort and speed and insisted on retention of more streetcar lines. However, with two–man PCC streetcars costing double the operating cost of a one–driver bus of similar capacity, there was no management incentive to buy large numbers of new streetcars.

What the public saw instead at the end of the 1940s was a fleet of new trolley coaches and motor coaches with upholstered seats and effective heaters running on smoothly repaved streets, replacing noisy, drafty, old streetcars with hard seats often bouncing along on bad track.

A few new streetcars

Muni did manage to find enough money from another source to buy ten modern streetcars, its first true PCCs, in 1948. These cars, numbered 1006-1015, were double–ended and set up for two–person crews. (Thanks in large part to persistent advocacy by MSR, seven of these cars, which later came to be known as “torpedoes” for their shape, were preserved, then fully restored, and are in Muni’s vintage streetcar fleet today.)

Here’s No. 1006 on the H-line, inbound on Van Ness Avenue at Jackson, on a 1951 fan trip. Washington-Jackson cable car No. 509, bedecked with a Red Cross blood bank promotion, is headed toward Pacific Heights. This wonderful cable line was destroyed a few years later when the cable car system was severely cut back. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Added to the five 1939 “Magic Carpet” cars, which were almost identical in appearance, Muni now had fifteen modern cars. Had they been deployed strategically on a line where it was not final whether streetcars would stay or go, they might have made a difference. Instead, however, in that critical period from 1948-1951, the modern cars were concentrated on two tunnel lines, the L and N, neither of which was in danger of conversion. In fact, the original destination signs of the 1948 double-enders indicate that decisions had already effectively been made. Though the D-Van Ness, F-Stockton, and H-Potrero all were recommended for continued streetcar service in the Newton Plan, and lasted into 1950 or 1951, none of those routes appears on the original 1948 roll signs of the “torpedoes”.

Some elements of the Newton plan had, by this time, been put into effect. The F-Stockton line (today’s 30-line trolley bus), which ran from the Marina through North Beach and Chinatown, reaching downtown through the Stockton tunnel, was connected to old MSRy tracks at Fourth and Market
to reach the Southern Pacific train depot, then at Third and Townsend Streets, but still using the original narrow 1912 Muni A-type” streetcars (including at times, preserved Car 1). The H-Van Ness line, which ran from Fort Mason south on Van Ness, 11th Street and Potrero Avenue to Army Street, was tied in there to the old Market Street Railway 25-line on San Bruno Avenue to reach all the way to Visitacion Valley.

Streetcars slip away on the F and H

In the various plans coming forth right after the war, the F and H lines were generally marked for retention; thus the investment in the extensions. But most of the original H-line route, on Van Ness and Potrero, was also US 101, and the State Division of Highways had a big say in what happened on those streets. With plans being made for heavy residential development in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge, it seemed certain that automobile demands on Van Ness would increase rapidly. Some grumbled that streetcars stopping frequently in the “fast” lane of the broad street would hold up automobiles. Running the modern streetcars on Van Ness might have counteracted this pressure somewhat, but there was resistance in Muni to using its newest cars on the beat up track on the outer end of the ex–MSRy route along San Bruno Avenue.

This shot, from a 1948 charter, shows Car 1015 headed downtown on the former MSRy 1-line on California Street at Presidio Avenue, about to jog over to Sutter. It’s passing a California Street Cable Railway car changing ends opposite the Jewish Community Center. There had been talk early of saving two Sutter lines (the 3 and 4) as streetcars, but the 1-line was always slated for bus conversion. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

The F-Stockton posed a different problem. Muni’s new streetcars were wide, but the F-line used Muni’s oldest “A-type” cars because they were also its narrowest, and could more easily squeeze past the delivery trucks on the commercial streets that made up most of the route. Trolley coaches, not stuck on rails, could at least swing around traffic that got in their way, and on Stockton Street, especially in Chinatown, that came to be seen as an appealing alternative, especially when F-line riders were still using 1912–vintage streetcars.

Streetcars saved on the J and M

The Muni had enough trolley coaches to convert the F-Stockton because it had been foiled in its plans to create the 46-Church trolley coach line. The J-line streetcar ran (and still runs) on a scenic private right–of–way to negotiate steep Dolores Heights, but it didn’t have any tunnels such as were protecting other lines’ streetcars. J-line ridership was lower than either the F or H and trolley coaches could easily handle the grades involved. But J-line riders in Noe Valley—and politicians who lived nearby—raised a fuss, and the streetcars were saved, making the replacement trolley coaches available for other conversions. Surprisingly to many riders today, the M-Ocean View was slated for bus conversion as well. Built in 1925, it ran through wide–open spaces on 19th Avenue that proved slower than expected to develop. But right after the war, the development of the Parkmerced apartment complex next to the M-line made planners think twice about dumping it. So did a 1948 plan by engineering firm DeLeuw Cather that recommended the M-line right of way as a rapid transit line (a proposal made again in conjunction with BART in the 1960s). The stunning aspect of that plan, however, was a grid of freeways beyond even what the State later proposed (and which caused the historic “freeway revolt” of the late 1950s and 1960s). The car was queen in this plan; surface transit the ugly stepchild.

Brand new Muni double-end PCC 1015 at the rustic terminal of the D and E lines inside the Presidio on a 1948 fantrip. Early postwar plans called for Union Street to be dual-mode. The E-line streetcars had been slated for conversion to trolley bus even before the war, but Muni couldn’t get the vehicles. But the D-line, which shared Union with the E, then followed Van Ness and Geary downtown, was recommended in the Newton plan to stay a streetcar operation. Trolley buses and streetcars shared Union for a short time until the D became the 45-line bus. Courtesy Walt Vielbaum.

Looking back, there were many factors combining to truncate San Francisco’s streetcar system after World War II. But the requirement for two crew members, even on modern streetcars, clearly played a dominant role. In a 1949 report on the Muni to the Board of Supervisors, consulting engineer Arthur Jenkins noted,“Almost every city in the country that still continues to operate streetcar service uses one–man cars with the notable exception of San Francisco.” He went on to state “it has been generally true throughout the industry that use of one–man cars has not been adopted primarily as a means of increasing profits to owners, but as a means of remaining in business at all.”

But rail restoration dreams have never died, and there have been successes, most notably with the T-line from Visitacion Valley to downtown, which opened in 2007, running mostly along the old 16-line MSRy route along Third Street. Its original downtown alignment was to continue under Third and Kearny Streets to reach downtown and Chinatown (as the 16-line did on the surface). Instead, it was shifted westward to run under Fourth and Stockton Streets, like the final alignment of Muni’s old F-Stockton line. (The T-line is still running on a temporary alignment through the Market Street Subway pending the completion of that Central Subway, now predicted by the end of 2021.)

Other rail dreams have not been realized, though. Restoring rail service to Van Ness Avenue, for example, either in a subway or on the surface, gave way to a drawn-out bus rapid transit project, still under construction in late 2020. The biggest rail restoration dream of all, along Geary, also seems dead, as that corridor moves fitfully toward bus rapid transit as well. Our next post will look at the 1950s fight to the death over the Geary streetcar lines, and examine the attempts to bring rail back there.

We depend on your support to keep telling these stories of how transit built today’s San Francisco. Please consider supporting us. Thanks.

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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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Pedal to the metal: “Finding room to run”

We all know that old saying, “They don’t make them like THAT anymore”. With the late Art Curtis, that’s the truth. In his 37-year career with Muni, Art solved all kinds of operational problems as Chief Inspector, but as a “young buck” (his term) operator, he created his share of mischief, too. We’ll be sharing a couple of stories here told by Art himself. This one comes from a 2009 issue of our member magazine, Inside Track. (Join us to get this quarterly magazine with its stories of San Francisco transit history as an exclusive member benefit.)

by Art Curtis     

Art Curtis on his first day as a Muni motorman, 1961, at what turned out to be his favorite terminal, City College on the K-Ingleside line. MSR Archive

 Stand on Market Street today and watch the streetcars go by.  You’ll notice they pretty much stay in the same order all day.  You might see the Boston PCC, then the yellow Milan tram, then the Harvey Milk car (Muni 1051).  Back when I was operating streetcars on Market in the 1960s though, it was a much different story.

Market Street, 1967. Wonder whether the motorman of J-line PCC 1031 was Art’s nemisis, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein? MSR Archive

They were all streamliner PCCs then, of course, all painted green and cream, so that casual onlookers couldn’t tell if the order of the cars changed.  But the order of the cars made a big difference to many of us operators – the difference between a good day and a bad day.

Here’s why.  Today, it’s just the F-line on Market, but back then all five streetcar lines, the J, K, L, M, and N, shared those Market Street tracks.  Those of us who were “runners” – who liked to take advantage of the PCCs fast acceleration and rapid braking to keep to our schedule – did our best to be sure we had room to run.

Let me give you an example.  I once worked a run [a day’s worth of trips] named 27-K, which meant it was run number 27 primarily routed on the K-Ingleside line.  I picked up the car from its previous operator every day at 4:47 p.m. at the West Portal of the old Twin Peaks Tunnel. Usually, though, the operator was six to eight minutes late.  As a runner that just heightened my enjoyment of the day’s work. 

One of Art’s favored “Baby Ten” PCCs rolling out Ocean Avenue at Cedro in Ingleside Terraces, bound for City College. If Art Curtis were the motorman, he’d be hustling to make up time. Mike Sheridan photo, MSR Archive

 You see, that run was scheduled to start its next trip, from the old Phelan Loop at City College, at 5:06 p.m., less than 20 minutes after I was scheduled to get the car at West Portal.  It was a daily, but totally rewarding challenge to get the heavy load of students at that hour on board at the terminal and make it back to West Portal within the bare ten minutes allowed by the schedule (laughably short compared to today’s schedules).

PCC 1027 at the K-line’s City College terminal. The car will navigate a very tight loop to get back to Ocean Avenue. Art would have the wheels squealing to beat his slow L-line compatriot, Joe Shook, to West Portal. MSR Archive

 Achieving that reward was especially important during one particular sign-up, because if I got to West Portal late, my follower on the L-line would cut me out, get ahead of me through the tunnel and down Market.  That motorman was the infamously slow Joe Shook, who was already a couple of minutes late when he reached West Portal.  I would often make a “Hollywood Stop” at West Portal & Ulloa, rolling through the inbound point-on switch ringing my gong and waving at Joe to stop and let me go ahead of him.

If I got in place ahead of Joe, I still had to hot foot it through the Twin Peaks Tunnel and down to Church Street on Market to make sure I got in place ahead of my J-line follower, “Shaky Jake” Grabstein, who always liked to run a couple of minutes ahead of schedule.  The final challenge on this first trip on 27-K was to get up the hill to Duboce and make sure I got in place ahead of my “N” follower, whose name I can’t remember – but I do remember that just like the other two, he was so, so slow!!  If I could get ahead of them, I could make up any lost time.  Nothing better for a runner like me to start down the hill from Duboce and see my leader somewhere down around Fourth or Third Street. Then I could really move!! It made no difference if we had a “swinging load” of passengers or not – just as long as we could move!

Market Street east of Duboce, with the double-deck Central Freeway looming over Octavia Street. Despite the freeway, Art had a clear view inbound well past Van Ness. MSR Archive

But if any of these guys got in front of me, I knew that when I finally got back to West Portal outbound, I’d be really late. That would force the inspector, Bill Veach (whom I had “helped” at West Portal as a young railfan before I was hired), to set up a car trade for me. I usually inherited a “good” car (which to me meant either a double-ended “Torpedo” or a “Baby Ten,” not an ex-St. Louis 1100) when I began my run. But if I was late on the first return trip from East Bay Terminal, I’d be stuck for the rest of the night with whatever car Bill could get another motorman to trade at West Portal. Though he did always try to get me a Baby Ten or a Torpedo if he could, it all depended on which motormen were willing to make the car trades and pull-in late.  If he couldn’t make a trade, I told him to just let me run and I’ll get back on time!

Inspector Bill Veach, right, checks on PCC 1145 at West Portal. If Art were in that 1100, he’d be begging Veach for a trade for a Baby Ten or Torpedo. By the way, note the extra black fleet number over the front door. That was Art’s idea, as an inspector, to make it easier to pick out individual cars during BART construction. Only a few cars ever got this treatment, though. MSR Archive

This may sound trivial to some readers today, but let me tell you, having a good car to run, and room to run it, made all the difference between a frustrating day at work and a satisfying one – and of course it made things better for passengers, too, since I knew how to keep my car on schedule if no one got in front of me to slow me down!!

PCC 1025 at East Bay Terminal, completing another run, a bit before Art’s time at Muni (1955). Note the W-P neon sign on Mission Street, the headquarters of Western Pacific Railroad. The feather promotes their “Feather River Route” through the Sierra Nevada. Phillip Scherer photo, MSR Archive

Art Curtis’ family has generously asked that donations in his memory can be made to Market Street Railway. If you’re so inclined, click here, and put Art’s name in the honoree box near the bottom of the donation page. We’ll use those donations for something special to honor him.

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Our Spies are Everywhere!

 

Even Truckee, where John Griffin snapped these two shots of the latest PCC to be rehabilitated by Brookville Equipment Company in Pennsylvania. The photos were forwarded to us by Market Street Railway member James Giraudo.

Car 1055 should be at Muni Metro Center by the time you read this. It is the sixth of 16 PCC cars covered by the current rehabilitation contract with Brookville. The contract covers the original F-line streetcar fleet from 1995, including 13 single end streetcars that Muni procured used from Philadelphia’s SEPTA. This car, numbered 2122 in Philadelphia, looks sparkling new in the same green and cream paint scheme, with red trim, that it was delivered to Philadelphia wearing in 1948.

Meanwhile, the last PCC to arrive, No. 1062, now painted to honor Pittsburgh Railways Co., is moving through its 1000-mile “burn-in” period, where components are tested before the car is accepted for service by Muni. The shops recently added the PRCo logo just to the rear of the center door, provided to them by us, with thanks to our friends at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, which gave us detailed advice on the Pittsburgh livery we adopted.

The next PCC due back from Brookville is Baltimore 1063, now painted in its original teal (or is it cyan — heck, blue-green) livery, quite a change from the later yellow livery it wore in San Francisco when it was first restored in 1995. That yellow was actually quite a bit more, er, YELLOW than the orangey hue actually adopted by Baltimore. We hope the new colors are more accurate, but a head’s up — that color from back in the days of lead-based paints, is very difficult to get just right, even with the great help we got from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. We don’t have an anticipated arrival date for the 1063, but as we say, our spies are everywhere, and we’ll post a photo when we get one.

 

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Boston’s Back in Business

Muni’s paint shop folks put the finishing touch on newly-returned PCC 1059, applying the “Boston Elevated Railway” decal prepared by our ace graphic designer, David Dugan. The 1059 should be entering “burn-in” activities in the next few days. This is the acceptance period for each of the 16 cars in the current rehabilitation contract with Brookville Equipment Company following their complete renovation. This involves running the car without passengers for 1,000 miles to test all systems and ensure the car… — Read More

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Second Renovated PCC Back From Contractor

  The second of 16 PCCs streetcars that made up the original F-line fleet is back in San Francisco and is beginning testing, with the hope of having it back on the F-line carrying passengers by the end of November. Car 1051, painted in the “simplified green and cream” paint scheme used by Muni on its streetcars in the late 1960s and 1970s, is dedicated to the late Harvey Milk, who rode streetcars painted like this between his Castro Camera… — Read More

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