San Francisco’s historic streetcars, which ply between Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf along Market Street and the Embarcadero, are an ironic survival.
Most San Francisco streetcar lines gave place to trolleybuses and motor buses after the Second World War. A small number of routes survived because they used tunnels that couldn’t be adapted to non-guided vehicles. By 1982 the transport authority, Muni, converted the remaining streetcar routes to light-rail and built a twin-level subway along Market Street with light-rail on the upper deck and the inter-bay, heavy-rail BART line below.
In that same year, the utterly worn-out cable-car system shut down for complete rebuilding over a two-year period. In an attempt to maintain tourist interest, Muni, in conjunction with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, ran some of the surviving streetcars along the Market Street surface tracks as a summertime tourist attraction.
These Historic Trolley Festivals were so successful that they were retained after the cable-cars returned in 1984, and from 1987 the Market Street lines were relaid and a fresh fleet bought second-hand from Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey.
When the Embarcadero Freeway was demolished after the 1989 earthquake, opening up the harbour piers to the city centre, streetcar tracks were laid all the way from the Ferry Terminal, the focal point of the original cable-car and streetcar systems, past Pier 39 to Fisherman’s Wharf.
The current F-Market & Wharves line is a fully functioning component of the city’s public transport, serving the suburb of Castro as well as the tourist honeypots downtown. A further E-Embarcadero line south from the Ferry Terminal reopened in 2015 but has remained suspended, initially because of pandemic restrictions, since 2020.
Most of the vehicles are the ubiquitous PCC cars, designed in the early 1930s and mass-produced until the 1950s, spacious, comfortable cars with impressive acceleration, painted in liveries from a range of American cities. There are also some older vehicles, Peter Witt cars, originally designed for Cleveland and successfully exported to Europe. These exceptionally noisy vehicles are from Milan, and still contain charming Italian notices inside – Vietato fumare, Vietato sputare, Uscita. And, on special occasions, a historic fleet is wheeled out, including a 1934 Blackpool open “Boat” tram.
It’s ironic that, while San Francisco’s two successive light-rail fleets have been plagued by technical faults and remain far from popular with passengers, the seventy-year-old PCC cars and their older Peter Witt cousins trundle back and forth smoothly, fairly quietly and efficiently.
For practical information about the F-Market & Wharves streetcar service, see https://www.sfmta.com/routes/f-market-wharves or to indulge your inner anorak look up the cars at http://www.streetcar.org/streetcars. The latter site belongs to the San Francisco Railway Museum, which is about streetcars, not railways, and is to all practical purposes a shop: http://www.streetcar.org/museum/.