A Streetcar Named Desire

Sept. 13, 2006

As a new railway museum opens at the base of Market Street , both residents and tourists are wondering when Muni will add more service on its overtaxed F-Line.

On September 2nd,the San Francisco Railway Museum opened its doors for the first time - an eclectic, cozy abode situated on the ground floor of the busy new Hotel Vitale at 77 Steuart Street. As if by design, the entrance lies right where the “F” trolley line makes its hair pin turn across from the Ferry Building.

Planners have envisioned a “21st century museum honoring 19th century technology”, one that will feature interactive displays and hands-on access to equipment, but in the meantime you’ll find a somewhat less ambitious, more intimate gallery containing Muni memorabilia and an exhibit of vintage photographs from the 1906 earthquake.

According to Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway Association, “The cars themselves are the museums. These are genuine vintage transit vehicles that are still providing not only good service but very heavy service. And that they continue to soldier on is a tribute to the way they were built."

It was San Francisco’s cable cars, of course, that first grinded their determined way up and down the city’s streets in 1873 - an innovation designed in part to spare the horses frequently injured while pulling the older omnicabs. However, drawing its current from a single overhead wire, the electric-powered streetcar is generally credited with putting mass public transit on the map in the United States. The first regularly operating service streamed into the sprawling metropolis of Richmond, Virginia in 1888.

In the official S.F. Muni guide, “Museums in Motion”, older city residents point out that four sets of tracks used to run down Market Street and were fondly referred to as “the roar of the four”. One set of these tracks belonged to Muni. A private transit operator controlled the other pair until Muni purchased the company in 1944.

From a peak of fifty lines in the 1920’s, the J,K,L,M and N lines were all that was left by 1982, and these had their old trolleys replaced by the big Breda LRVs that now slog daily through the Market Street tunnel and out to the edges of the city limits. A new “T-Third Street” line is scheduled to begin service in early 2007.
Still in the development stages are a proposed E-Embarcadero line for trolleys, to run between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Caltrain Depot at 4th and King Streets, and additional track on the F-Line that will extend out to Aquatic Park and Fort Mason.

As in the case of the city’s public transit system in general, overcrowding on the F-line Market Street Line reached the breaking point this summer, according to Market Street Railway Association’s internal publication, Inside Track. Writing in the summer issue, Laubscher said drivers became so frustrated with the problem of loading their jammed trolleys that many began posting “Sorry, Car is Full” signs. Many riders were left stranded indefinitely at the Ferry Building stop, which is the midpoint along the F-line route.
Nat Ford, executive director of Muni’s parent company, the Municipal Transportation Agency, said in a letter to the Association that additional trains on the F-line may not be in the works anytime soon, due to that agency’s budget restraints.

Muni has indicated in other press dispatches that it expends $1.60 to transport each passenger on its various lines. Like other transit agencies, Muni receives federal taxpayer subsidies to offset alleged shortfalls in cash revenues collected from the fare box, passes and sales of advertising space.

Though Laubscher indicated that improvements have been made on the F-line since he published his article, in the eyes of many the next transportation museum to open in San Francisco may be one dedicated to civilized public transit. In these brave new times of budget-tightening, packing human cargo in the manner of package delivery trucks seems to be the new standard of urban public transportation.

Major funding for the railway museum was provided by Andy and Leslie Schilling (of Shilling spice fame), in addition to former Muni employee. MV Transportation, Fed-Ex and The Piers Project donated $10,000 each. The latter endeavor, managed by San Francisco Waterfront Partners, will transform several piers near the Ferry Building into a combined new maritime, commercial and tourist complex in the near future.

The San Francisco Railway Museum, located at 77 Steuart Street, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. Take any bus or subway train to the foot of Market, then walk one block south. The F-Line trolley stops just past the museum, at the hairpin curve. For more information, call (415) 974-1948.

Copyright 2006 The City Edition