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January 1, 2019

San Francisco: Streetcars

Painted in Cincinnati’s colors 1057 is a PCC design streetcar. This picture is from January of 2017. The car is currently back in restoration.

In 1982 San Francisco faced a dilemma. The city’s famous cable car system needed a major rebuild. With the cable cars projected to be out of operation for 18 months the city would lose one of its major tourist attractions. San Francisco needed something else to appeal to tourists.

After some deliberation, it was decided to put more of San Francisco’s historic streetcars back in service as an alternative to the cable cars. San Francisco’s own cars would join streetcars brought in from around the world for a festival. Thus the Historic Trolley Festival kicked off on June 24 1983. Offering service five days a week the streetcars were on San Francisco’s streets until the end of September. The Trolley Festival proved popular with tourists and locals; it was repeated each summer until 1987.

The success of the Trolley Festival energized the ongoing proposals for a permanent F-Market transit line equipped historic streetcars. Ultimately the San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed and approved the idea. Planning began to identify funding.

1807 is a Milan car of the Peter Witt design.

Fast forwarding to today historic streetcars run in regular service on two routes in San Francisco. One route, the E-Embarcadero, runs along the bay front linking the CalTrain commuter rail station to Fisherman’s Wharf. The other line, the F Market & Wharves, connects Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro. It uses tracks on Market Street and shares the tracks with the E-line along the Embarcadero segment from the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf. The system is popular and serves as a core transit option.

The streetcars in use in San Francisco today have diverse origins. Some originate from the States and others started service around the world. The cars range in age. Oldest in the inventory, Market Street Railway Company’s Car 578, was built in 1896. The youngest car in the inventory, Car 1040, was built for San Francisco in 1952, 67 years ago.

Most eye catching are the Milan cars, which all date from the 1920’s. The Milan cars are of a design introduced by Cleveland Railway commissioner Peter Witt in 1914. This style of streetcar was used in many North American cities including Toronto and Cleveland, but not in San Francisco, at least until recently. The Peter Witt design was also popular in some European cities and continues in use today in Milan and Naples Italy. San Francisco’s streetcar inventory includes 11 Italian-built Peter Witt cars. Seven of San Francisco’s Milan streetcars are currently running (as of December of 2018).

Car 1055, a PCC design, is going nowhere in particular.

The inside of a PCC car

The backbone of San Francisco’s historic streetcar fleet is the PCC cars. PCC or the Presidents’ Conference Committee streetcars were employed by many transit systems around the world. It was a popular design and was used extensively in San Francisco. The current streetcar tally indicates that San Francisco owns 59 PCC cars in total. Not all of the PCCs are in use. Some are considered beyond restoration and are used for parts. Others are in the process of being restored and configured to the modern transit standards. Of the city’s 59 PCC cars, 23 are currently listed as in service.

Some but not all of San Francisco’s PCC cars came from Muni’s mothballed fleet. To fill out the roster Muni needed more cars and purchased other cities’ surplus inventory. Philadelphia, Newark, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis all sold cars to San Francisco.

Before the city could deploy its new old fleet, the streetcars needed to be rejuvenated. With the work came a choice: How would the streetcars be painted? There were two schools of thought. Either the cars could all be painted in their original San Franciscan livery or they could be painted in the style they were painted in around the world.

“Birmingham Electric”, car 1077

Inside a Milan car

The choice was made to paint the cars in tribute livery to represent how they were in use around the globe. In practice this means that the streetcars colors don’t necessarily represent their actual history. For example, Car 1077 was built by the St. Louis Car Company and delivered for service to the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company in 1947. When Twin Cities no longer needed the car they sold it to Newark in 1953. In 2004 the car was purchased by Muni, rehabilitated, and painted in the style of the Birmingham Electric Company’s streetcars.  Car 1051 was acquired by Muni from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in 1992 and repainted with the San Francisco livery. Car 1009 was built for San Francisco Municipal Railway in 1948 but is painted to honor Dallas Railway & Terminal Company’s PCCs.

With the choice of painting its streetcars with diverse liveries, San Francisco’s historic trolley fleet became a de facto open-air streetcar museum. The streetcars are supported by an actual museum, SF Railway Museum, which provides more background on both SF’s streetcars and cable cars. The museum is located just off the intersection of the E- and F-lines near the Ferry building. Entrance is free.

Over time San Francisco has added more historic cars to its fleet. There are now cars in the fleet from Osaka Japan, Porto Portugal, Blackpool England, Johnstown Pennsylvania, Melbourne Australia, Kobe and Hiroshima Japan, Brussels Belgium, and New Orleans Louisiana. Many of these cars are in or are waiting for restoration.

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For the most part, San Francisco normally runs PCC cars on it tracks along with a few Peter Witt Milan cars. It is rare to see anything else out in regular service.

After we saw historic streetcars parked at Muni’s maintenance lot in 2010 we had a harebrained notion of trying to ride them all. It didn’t seem like it would be that hard, but the idea faded in favor of other missions. But when we stayed on San Francisco’s Market Street during the 2016/2017 winter the goal of riding them all became inevitable. The streetcars where passing right by our rental flat. How could we not try to ride them all?

We soon learned that not all of the San Francisco’s streetcars listed as operational are in regular use. As a further complication, Muni rotates cars in and out of their active roster. It would not be as easy as it seemed to ride them all, but we did our best. At this point we’ve ridden 42 different streetcars, which is pretty much a full set of the regularly active cars. The remaining four unridden cars are not normally in use.

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The most memorable car that we rode was Car 1, San Francisco’s original. Car 1 is not in regular use, but chartering streetcars from Muni is possible and any in-service historic streetcar can be chartered, theoretically at least. (You select two cars and Muni chooses the one actually sent out. And for some routes only the double-end cars are possible to charter.) Thus we arranged to charter Car 1 for two hours and invited our friends to take a party tour of the tracks. It was good fun. Car 1 is beautifully restored on the inside; it’s worth making an extra effort to see.

So what’s our favorite San Franciscan streetcar? It is the next PCC car that arrives at the streetcar stop.

Analog controls

Stalking streetcars

In terms of day-to-day riding, we like the PCC cars best. They are not as sexy as the Milan cars from the street, but their ride is superior and they are quieter. PCC streetcars weigh around 20 tons and it feels like it. The ride feels like sitting in the backseat of a ’57 Chevy heading down a long straight section of freeway. There’s an upside of PCC over a Chevy; the streetcars corner like they are on rails.


Aficionados can see which of San Francisco’s streetcars that are currently out on the streets on Next Muni.



  1. Thanks for posting this! I love SF’s historic street cars and ride the F-line whenever I can!

    Comment by dougstinson — January 2, 2019 @ 1:26 am

  2. And here is a Milan-style streetcar – in Milan:

    Comment by dougstinson — January 2, 2019 @ 1:31 am

    • Nice one.

      Comment by anotherheader — January 2, 2019 @ 1:33 am

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