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Uncabled Cars

By Tom McNichol
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 27, 1998; Page E01



In San Francisco, the little cable cars still climb halfway to the stars, but the journey isn't always as magical as it sounds. What Tony Bennett doesn't mention is that before boarding you may have to stand in an hour-long line that at times resembles the Bataan Death March. As you slowly shuffle down Powell Street waiting in line you're easy prey for the hungry packs of street musicians, panhandlers and itinerant preachers that feed on tourists. When you finally squeeze onto one of the cable cars, the sight of half the passengers videotaping the other half may make you wish you had taken the bus instead.

Fortunately, San Francisco has a better transit option--one that's as enchanting as the cable cars but hasn't yet become a glorified amusement park ride: the trolleys. San Francisco is home to seven working trolley lines, one of the most extensive in-town rail systems in the country. Unlike the cable cars, which serve a small chunk of the tourist area, the trolleys (alternately known as streetcars or light rail vehicles) traverse the city from the bay to the ocean, rumbling through real neighborhoods, shuttling locals to their jobs and giving riders postcard views without the postcards.

San Francisco's trolleys even share some of the cable cars' romance, now that the city has inaugurated the Market Street F-Line, which features a fleet of more than two dozen vintage trolley cars. The classic cars, many more than a half-century old, have been restored to mint condition and sent back into everyday service, creating a kind of transit museum in motion. A journey on one of these graceful ghosts is a trip back to a gentler time, when trolleys clattered through the streets of many American cities and the words "urban mass transit" didn't make people run for cover.

The best place to hop aboard one of the vintage cars is at the Transbay Terminal at First and Mission Streets, the eastern terminus of the F-Line. The sight of a World War II-era trolley car rolling past the gray granite terminal building seems like a scene out of a flickering black and white newsreel. You half expect to see Wendell Willkie giving a rousing campaign speech from the back of one of the cars.

From the terminal, the trolley clatters slowly onto Market. The Ferry Building stands at the foot of Market Street, an elegant 1898 sandstone shipping terminal that was once a major trolley destination, and will soon be again. By late next year, the F-Line will be extended to the Ferry Building, linking with a trolley line that will run from Fisherman's Wharf to the Giants' new downtown ballpark, scheduled to open in April 2000.

Clattering down Market Street, the trolley cuts a swath through the steel and glass boxes of the Financial District. You can see the shimmering image of the vintage trolley you're aboard reflected in the office windows, like looking into a mirror that projects the past. At Powell Street, you pass the long-suffering line of tourists waiting to board the cable car to Fisherman's Wharf--an area, we're proud to remind readers, that's virtually devoid of either fishermen or working wharves and is one of the most charmingly efficient tourist-exploitation zones in the world. Give the waiting crowd a sympathetic wave, but try not to make eye contact with anyone holding a guitar, megaphone, Bible or plastic cup.

Hop off the trolley at Hyde Street for a look at the city's new $138 million Main Public Library, which gives a good sense of both San Francisco's personality and where libraries are headed. The New Main is a carefully tailored fortress of political correctness, featuring a Gay and Lesbian Center, a Latino/Hispanic Community Meeting Room and a Library for the Blind and Print Handicapped. It plays down books in favor of online services, but feels vaguely nostalgic about the printed word; remnants of the library's defunct card catalogue are featured on a wall display as though they were ruins of a long-lost civilization. A self-consciously multicultural citadel that's firmly bought into a high-tech future even as it pines for the past--that's as good a description of San Francisco as you're likely to find.

From the library, the F-Line rumbles into a more residential area along upper Market Street. The buildings become smaller, the pace slows and languid palm trees grace the median. The tracks leave Market to make a loop, and the line doubles back on itself at Castro Street, in the heart of the Castro District. The Castro is one of the country's oldest and most famous gay neighborhoods, and the local street scene is always, well, a scene. Walk half a block down Castro Street and take in a show at the Castro Theater, a magnificently restored movie palace that shows repertory films and any movie containing the words "Director's Cut." After taking a vintage trolley to a deco movie palace and watching a 1940s film classic, you may find yourself liking Wendell Willkie's chances in the next election.

Just off the F-Line, in the shadow of the San Francisco Mint, half a dozen beat-up trolleys sit forlornly in a small repair yard, a scene right out of "Thomas the Tank Engine." It's here that a group of trolley enthusiasts calling themselves the Market Street Railway Co. work on restoring old streetcars to their former glory.

"The F-Line has become more popular than anyone imagined," says volunteer Dave Pharr, a trolley buff who looks the part, dressed in greasy overalls and a floppy Choo-Choo Charlie hat. "People even have nicknames for some of the cars. Look, there goes the Pumpkin."

Pharr points to a burnt-orange-colored streetcar clacking down Market Street, one of several late-1920s models purchased from Milan. Many of the Milan cars still contain their original transit advertising, placards promising cheap deals on "appartamenti." San Francisco's vintage fleet boasts more than a dozen cars from abroad, including cars from Moscow and Hiroshima. One of the most popular, run only on special occasions, is nicknamed "The Boat"--a 1934 open-topped car from the English seaside resort of Blackpool. Being aboard the Boat is like riding in a gaudy convertible with the top down--the slack-jawed gapes of passers-by is worth the price of admission.

The bulk of the city's vintage fleet are American-made PCC cars, named after the President's Conference Committee, a 1930s trolley consortium that came up with the elegant design. From the outside, the PCCs look like butter dishes on wheels. Their sleek lines and tastefully understated deco interiors set the standard for the industry, and were the iron workhorses in many U.S. cities from the late 1930s until most streetcar systems were scrapped.

The PCCs are painted in the original colors used by various city transit companies--the yellow and gray of the old Baltimore Transit Co.; the blue, green and silver of Brooklyn Rapid Transit; the maroon and white of the Red Arrow line that served Philadelphia. So far, no Washington car has hit the rails, mainly because some of the colors used by D.C. Transit and Capital Transit--a funky aqua and an off-orange--have been difficult to re-create.

These days, many cities are wishing they hadn't abandoned their trolley systems. Baltimore, Denver, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Diego and San Jose have all built light rail systems; Salt Lake City and Seattle will soon follow. What killed the trolleys in the first place--the overwhelming popularity of the automobile--is the same thing that's bringing them back as a niche transit option. Chronic automotive gridlock and expensive or nonexistent downtown parking has once again made taking the trolley an attractive alternative to driving in congested cities.

Through a combination of inertia and nostalgia, San Francisco never completely abandoned its trolley system, and it's now working to expand it along the bay to Fisherman's Wharf. The biggest problem facing the city's streetcar system these days is that it's too popular; it's regularly overwhelmed by rush-hour crowds, often unreliable light-rail vehicles and a buggy computer automation system, resulting in long delays and persistent demands for the head of Mayor Willie Brown. Oddly, the most unreliable cars in the fleet are those made by Boeing in the 1970s. The vintage PCC cars from the '40s and '50s rarely break down, and when they do, they're much easier to fix because they're so uncomplicated. When it comes to trolleys, as with many things, simpler is better.

Most of the F-Line crackles with urban energy, since the tracks run along one of San Francisco's busiest roads. To explore some of the city's more laid-back neighborhoods, hop aboard the J (Church), L (Taraval) or N (Judah) lines, all of which serve residential areas. Both the L and N lines run through the quiet, fog-shrouded streets of the Sunset District and terminate within a block of the Pacific Ocean, truly the end of the line. The N-Line skirts the southern edge of Golden Gate Park, and is perfect for an environmentally sensitive excursion to the park on public transit. The L-Line runs through West Portal, a neighborhood frozen in 1956, from the counter stools at the Manor Coffee Shop (Monday special: meatloaf) to the Eezy Freezy Market, an old-fashioned corner grocery that still has a sign promising S&H Green Stamps.

The most varied of the three routes is the J-Church line, which features a mix of both vintage and modern trolley cars, the newest purchased last year at a cost of $2.7 million. If you take the F-Line to the corner of Market and Church streets and get a transfer, you can ride the J-Line for no additional charge.

At 16th Street the J train swoops within a block of San Francisco's oldest building, Mission Dolores, built in 1791. One of 21 Spanish missions built by the Franciscans along the California coast, Mission Dolores's adobe walls have weathered two centuries of earthquakes and fires. An intriguing cemetery adjoins the mission, where weathered tombstones thrust out of the ground at odd angles amid yew and palm trees.

From near the Mission, the tracks climb through Dolores Park, a grassy promenade that's a popular sunbathing and dog exercise spot (a friendly caution: Inspect the grass carefully before you lie on it). A streetcar stop at 20th Street offers one of the best panoramas of the city, a view that never appears on postcards. On a clear day, you can see all of downtown, the Bay Bridge, Oakland, Berkeley and even Mount Diablo, more than 25 miles away. On the southeast corner of 20th and Church, a gold fire hydrant--repainted every year--marks the spot where the great fire following the 1906 quake was brought under control.

South of the park, the tracks enter a charming secluded curve, snaking between the back yards of classic Victorians. From your trolley perch you can catch glimpses of lives quietly unfolding--a woman in an upstairs window reading the paper, clothes flapping on the line, a baseball glove abandoned in a yard.

Linking again with Church Street, the J-Line rattles through the Noe Valley, an old Irish neighborhood that more recently has become popular with young latte-sipping professionals. Noe Valley probably has more places to buy coffee than anyplace outside Seattle, which may be why the city has imposed a temporary moratorium on new coffee shops along 24th Street, the neighborhood's main commercial strip. Now, if only it would ban cell phones.

The line continues along Church Street, passing the graceful spires of St. Paul's church, semi-famous for being featured in the movie "Sister Act." The tracks turn onto busy St. Jose Avenue, where riders are treated to the trolley's top speed of about 35 mph, which seems fast when you're inside. The line terminates at Balboa Park, where it links with BART, San Francisco's subway.

The subway is certainly faster than the trolley, but there's no comparing the ride. There's something undeniably lyrical about riding a trolley, from the gentle clack of the rails to the rhythms of everyday life seeping through your window. For many, it's the sound of a long-forgotten song, but in San Francisco, it's a tune that's never stopped playing.

Most airlines offer service to San Francisco from Washington; round-trip fares start at about $300. For more information: San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-220-5747 or 415-391-2000,

Tom McNichol last wrote about Silicon Valley for Travel.



© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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