When Rick Laubscher was 6, he rode a streetcar to the circus. The San Francisco native is pretty sure he saw the lions and tigers and all that comes with it, but he wasn’t left with much of an impression.
"I don't remember the circus," he says six decades later. "But I remember that streetcar ride."
So started a lifelong fascination with San Francisco's streetcars that eventually led to Laubscher’s playing a key role in the creation of a vintage trolley line through the heart of the city, allowing visitors and commuters alike to ride the rails just as they did a century ago.
Though not as recognizable as the city’s famed cable cars, the F-Line of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (known locally as Muni) offers a unique way to take in the sights. Every day, up to two dozen vintage streetcars – sometimes including 14 originally in service in Philadelphia – carry people from the Castro District to Fisherman’s Wharf.
"San Francisco's past isn't just frozen in an old picture or sitting in a museum," says Ed Reiskin, the transportation agency's director of transportation. "You can actually get on and ride these streetcars from another era."
Reiskin says Muni is unique because it has two vintage types of transit integrated into its otherwise modern system. The famous cable cars date from 1873 and were designed to climb the city’s steep hills by connecting to a cable that circulates under the street. The 1906 earthquake destroyed many of the city’s cable car lines, and most were replaced with streetcars, which get their power from overhead wires.
As was the case in many cities, the streetcars spurred a huge amount of development. By the 1930s, 50 trolley lines – including four sets of tracks right up the middle of Market Street – connected every neighborhood.
In the 1950s, buses replaced dozens of streetcar routes in San Francisco. In the 1970s, the city began to modernize its rail system and replaced more streetcars with light-rail vehicles. It also put its Market Street route beneath the main thoroughfare. In 1982, the last vintage streetcars were warehoused. Muni rolled out one of its oldest streetcars for a final ride along Market Street.
It was that ride that gave Laubscher, then chair of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee, an idea to organize a vintage trolley festival that would offer rides up and down Market Street on weekends. The chamber took the idea to Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who supported it but cautioned that she did not “want to see any junk out there.”
The first festival was an overwhelming success and was repeated for five years, setting the stage for a permanent vintage trolley line through the city. On Sept. 1, 1995, the F-Line opened for service.
The F-Line starts at the intersection of 17th and Castro Streets, in the heart of the vibrant Castro District, and heads toward downtown.
After skirting the Financial District, the F-Line rounds a curve toward the small San Francisco Railway Museum run by Market Street Railway, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and supports historic transit in the city. The line includes a stop at the Ferry Building, completed on the waterfront in 1898 and known for its 245-foot clock tower, and follows the waterfront all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Light-rail vehicles offer a smoother and quieter ride, of course, but the streetcar experience is much more memorable. Some of the trolley cars have wooden benches, and the only air conditioning is an open window. Muni has upgraded the cars with GPS and rear-view cameras, but you would be hard-pressed to find anything else from the 21st century when you board.
Emma González has been at Muni for 20 years and has been working since 2008 on the vintage streetcars, which come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
"I feel like a movie star" operating the old streetcars, she says. "People come from all over the world to ride them."
Her favorite streetcar is No. 578, affectionately called the "Dinky." The car was built in 1896 and looks nearly identical to the hill-climbing cable cars.
Muni has more than 50 historical streetcars, many from across the United States, but others came from England, Italy, and Australia. The bulk of the fleet is made up of Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars, or PCCs, streamlined cars that date from the 1930s.
More than 4,500 PCCs were built and used in 33 cities, including Philadelphia. Though some of them are painted in Muni’s vintage green-and-cream livery, most are painted in tribute to the various cities that used them. Philadelphia uses them on Route 15 on Girard Avenue.
"It's a riot of color, patterns, and designs representing all of the different transit agencies," Laubscher says.
Maintaining century-old streetcars is no easy task, Reiskin says. Muni frequently has to make its own parts to keep them in service. Market Street Railway, of which Laubscher is president, helps.