Tuesday 6 November 2012

San Francisco, USA

The city of San Francisco, on America's west coast, is one of the world's major tourist destinations.  Its claims to fame include the Golden Gate Bridge, the former prison island of Alcatraz (in the background of this image), and its cable cars.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has overall responsibility for all forms of transport within the city, while the public transport system is operated by
San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).

Although San Francisco's cable cars have become a world-famous tourist attraction, the network was threatened with closure in the 1950s and some sections did close.  A public campaign ensured the survival of the remaining system, which has been designated as a national historic monument.   Three routes operate.

The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde routes both run north from the city centre along part of Powell Street, then serve parts of Mason and Hyde Streets respectively.  As can be seen from some of these images, they encounter steep gradients.



The cable cars on the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde routes can only be operated in one direction, therefore a turntable is used at the terminus to enable them to change direction.

The California route operates on an east-west axis on California Street.  Longer, double-ended cars are used on this route, therefore no turntable is needed at the termini.  This route also encounters steep gradients.


The cable cars are so named because they are powered by gripping a cable running beneath the road surface at a steady speed.  The cable is in continuous motion, the grip operator therefore releases the grip to disengage power.  The engine room is also a cable car museum, open 7 days a week with free admission.

This image was taken in the museum, overlooking the engine room, and shows the four cables which between them haul all the cars on the system.

Cable cars heading into the city centre pass the cable car museum, on the corner of Mason Street and Washington Street.

The cable cars operating now are clearly primarily a tourist attraction.  When I visited San Francisco in September 2012, the cable car fare for a single ride was $6 per journey, with no transfers permitted, compared to $2 (with transfers) on other modes of transport within San Francisco. The cable cars are very popular, and long queues can form through much of the day.  One way to avoid the queues is to ride early in the day.

The other transport modes are mix of buses, trolleybuses and trams (or streetcars, as they are generally called in the USA).  These, too, provide plenty of interest as well as variety.

The main route for streetcars used to be Market Street, which runs south-westwards from the city centre.  During the early 1980s, the streetcars were diverted into a tunnel beneath Market Street.  The tracks at street level were retained, initially for seasonal streetcar festivals, while plans for a historic streetcar service were developed.  The historic streetcar service, the "F" line, was introduced in 1995. 

Many of the streetcars date from the 1940s.  These cars carry a variety of liveries from different US and Canadian cities.  However, most of the cars actually came from one city, Philadelphia.


The former Philadelphia cars are uni-directional with doors on one side only.  There are also three bi-directional cars with doors on both sides.  These were new to Muni, although two of them carry liveries from other cities (Philadelphia and St. Louis) 


Initially, the "F" line ran along Market Street, from Castro to the city centre.  In 2000, it was extended to the Fisherman's Wharf area, popular with tourists.


The extension to Fisherman's Wharf meant extra vehicles were needed.  These were acquired from the Italian city of Milan.  Those which I saw retain the orange livery they carried in Italy, and even some signwriting in Italian!



Although the former Milan cars date from 1928, they aren't the oldest streetcars on San Francisco's streets.  This car, delivered new to Muni, was built in 1914.


The historic streetcars were not built with present-day accessibility in mind.  Nevertheless they are able to carry passengers using wheelchairs.  The cars carry portable ramps which can be placed over the steps at the front entrance door to a raised platform at designated stops.

There is a streetcar museum and gift shop near the Ferry Building in the centre of San Francisco.  More information about the historic streetcars, and the cable cars, can be found on the Market Street Railway website.

Unlike the cable cars, normal fares apply on the "F" line.  Single journey tickets are valid for up to 90 minutes for transfer to, from and between other Muni services.  

Modern streetcars operate on six other lines (J, K, L, M, N and T)
, known as "Muni Metro".  All six lines use the tunnel beneath Market Street.  Elsewhere, many parts of the network are above ground.

The articulated vehicles may operate as single units...


...or coupled together in pairs.


San Francisco's bus network is operated with single-deck vehicles.  As well as a number, each route is named, generally after one of the main streets which the route follows.  The route name is displayed in capitals above the destination.

Route 28 serves the Golden Gate Bridge visitor centre.  Alcatraz island is in the background.

The destination display may also show other messages, such as in support of San Francisco's football team, alternating with the route display.

Buses can carry 2 bicycles in a rack attached to the front of the vehicle.


While some buses carry a white livery, others are in this red and silver scheme.

As well as standard single-deckers, articulated buses are also operated.

America has long been home to yellow school buses.  These can be seen in San Francisco's suburbs.

Hybrid vehicles were introduced to San Francisco's streets from 2007.


Some of the hybrids are shorter-length, such as these which I found operating on a local route a short distance away from the city centre.  

A longer-established form of "clean" technology is the trolleybus.  San Francisco's fleet carries both white and red/silver liveries.




Articulated trolleybuses are also operated.

Muni is considering bringing further trolleybuses, including more articulated vehicles, into the fleet to enable more routes to be converted from diesel-powered buses.

Unsurprisingly for such a major tourist destination, sightseeing tour buses are plentiful in San Francisco.  Some are purpose-built open-toppers.

There are some built to resemble cable cars.

Some of the sightseeing buses are British double-deckers converted to open-top and exported thousands of miles from their original home.



A few of the open-toppers are even more well-travelled.  The British registration plate carried by this vehicle is a clue that it had previously been used in London (also on sightseeing tours) but it originally operated in Hong Kong.

Not all of the sightseeing buses are double-deck.  I noticed at least one single-decker, converted to part open-top, operating on San Francisco sightseeing tours.

The island of Alcatraz is reached by ferry.  Boats leave regularly from the Fisherman's Wharf area.  It's a popular attraction, and worth booking the boat in advance to avoid queueing.


It is here on Alcatraz that you will find a form of transport calling itself a tram (rather than a streetcar, cable car or Muni Metro).  This "tram" is a road train, which assists people with impaired mobility to explore the island.

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