San Francisco Rail: A Living History

S.F. historian Carl Nolte examines S.F.'s vibrant streetcar history and today's modern light rail replacements.
March 24, 2009, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Streetcars were (once) the clunkiest things in the world, expensive, noisy, old-fashioned. Nearly every big city in the country had them, and in the '40s and '50s, nearly every big city ripped up the tracks and junked the streetcars. They were dinosaurs. Now they are hip. How did that happen?

San Francisco was one of the few places that kept a few streetcar lines, mostly because the city fathers (no city mothers in those days) couldn't figure out a way to run buses through the Twin Peaks tunnel.

Streamlined cars - kids called them "Green Torpedoes" - gave the streetcars a reprieve in the '50s, but not until 1980, when the Muni Metro subway opened, did rail transit get off the endangered list.

But anybody who has lived here awhile knows how it is in San Francisco - out with the old! In with the new! Out with the new! Back to the old!

A generation later, San Francisco has emerged with a two-tier rail system - the modern Muni Metro, and the antique and highly successful F line, featuring old streetcars from around the world.

Now San Francisco's Muni carries close to 1 million customers a week on the rail lines. In the subway, it's not your grandfather's Muni. For one thing, Muni is big on the Internet. There is a site - the N-Judah Chronicles - devoted to life on the N line.

There are at least six blogs that deal with the agency at least some of the time. My favorite is MUNI Haiku. One sample from the J-Church line: "We stopped in the tunnel/we stopped in the tunnel again/nobody said a word."

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Published on Sunday, March 22, 2009 in San Francisco Chronicle
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