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Street Cars Tie City Together

Just what a streetcar is isn’t apparent to everyone. Some call them trolleys and others, unaware of the tracks, refer to them as busses. One tourist was overheard asking if the F-line streetcars were San Francisco’s famous cable cars. "No, they are only streetcars."


Courtesy of the Market Street Railway.Only streetcars? While they might not yet rank with the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge as an inseparable part of San Francisco, the Market Street Railway streetcars have made a definite impression on the city. Once as common as busses are today in American cities, the restored street cars that run on tracks up and down Market Street are still running in San Francisco because of a dedicated group of "Market Street Railway" volunteers who find, restore and maintain the cars. San Francisco may become associated with streetcars like it is with cable cars simply because the volunteers have been there to keep them running.

Some of the same cars that run on Market Street today ran there in the 1960s when a plan was announced to put the tracks underground. But soon it became obvious that bus routes couldn’t handle the traffic diverted from Market Street. Then in 1983 the cable cars were scheduled to be overhauled- bad news for the tourist industry, but good news for San Francisco’s streetcars.

The Chamber of Commerce, MUNI and the city came up with the idea for "historic" streetcars which would run on the Market Street tracks to keep tourist dollars flowing while the cable cars were out of service. After five years of operation, a period known as the "Trolley Festival," despite the popularity of the cars the line was in no condition to keep running indefinitely. The old cars built before the depression also required a two-man crew to operate them, an expense that would limit the long-term use and expansion of the system.

Courtesy of the Market Street Railway.But keeping the historic streetcar line operating presented a serious dilemma- where do you find enough cars to expand and operate the line indefinitely?

The search took Market Street Railway volunteers as far away as Russia and Italy and as close as Philadelphia. In fact, most of the single-ended World War II era "torpedo" cars running today were brought to San Francisco from suburban Philadelphia. They have been painted in a variety of colors representing streetcar lines around the country, including Brooklyn, Newark, Louisville and Chicago. "Market Street is a little drab in some places so they add a little color to town," says Market Street Railway volunteer Dave Pharr. The line began operation again in 1995. The round-looking torpedo cars, and the double ended versions with a driver’s seat at both ends are known as PCC cars, the name of a commission which set out to modernize America’s streetcars in the 1930s. The double-ended cars began their service life in San Francisco.

Courtesy of the Market Street Railway.A third type of car that regularly makes the Trans Bay Terminal to Castro run is the boxier looking cars from Milan, Italy. Complete with advertising signs still posted in Italian, the cars are decorated with wood and have large windows, perfect for sight-seeing.

These cars came from the same city as the newer light-rail cars that run on the N-Judah line. At $70,000 including shipping, the historic cars are a fraction of the $3 million cost for a new car.

Volunteers say that MUNI could learn a lot from the old cars too. "They’re reliable," says Dave Pharr explaining that the F-line continues to run when MUNI goes down. "The newer cars are sophisticated and complicated and MUNI has trouble taking care of something like that," Pharr says adding that eight men take care of the streetcars while over 200 MUNI employees maintain the subway-surface cars.

Besides getting transit workers to the office when the subway grinds to a halt, the F-line may have given retail business on Market Street a boost. The streetcars not only bring more tourists to Market Street, but they stop frequently, channeling shoppers to stores around the stations and increasing foot traffic all along Market Street from the Financial District to the Castro.

Retail businesses will benefit a second time when the streetcars finally connect most of the city’s tourist attractions including Fisherman’s Wharf, the cable cars and the Giants Stadium with Castro. If a proposed plan is adopted, the cars may also extend into Golden Gate Park. "Suburban tourists won’t ride a MUNI bus, but they will take a historic streetcar," said volunteer Mike Smith.

Courtesy of the Market Street Railway.When the landscaping is complete and the Embarcadero line opens later this year, volunteers and fans of the Market Street Railway will have cause to celebrate. With a knack for insight, San Francisco saw the potential for streetcars when other cities abandoned them. Market Street Railway members, through their initiative and dedication have given the retail and tourist industries in the city a boost and made life easier for commuters. More importantly, they have helped preserve a piece of San Francisco history that may someday be a tourist attraction in itself.

Still, despite the uniqueness of the cars and efforts of the volunteers, Pharr admits "to some people they will never be anything more than a bus."

Contact Information:

San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau
201 Third Street, Ste. 900, San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: 415-391-2000 | TDD 415-392-0328
Fax: 415-974-1992