Take the F Train

09/19/2011 at 12:37 pm

It’s packed with tourists on their way to Fisherman’s Wharf. It doesn’t run through the normal underground stations downtown. After going out of service, it sails down Church Street toward its Muni storage facility, teasing you with its approaching lights as you wait for the arrival of the elusive J.

Yes, the Muni F line is more for visitors than commuters, but it’s also a lot of fun. Instead of the regular grey Muni cars, the F is made up of a fleet of historic streetcars from around the world. The colorful cars brighten up Market Street and the Embarcadero, with designs hailing from Milan, Philadelphia and Birmingham, just to name a few.

How did these historic streetcars become fixtures on modern-day SF streets? You can thank the Market Street Railway, a non-profit organization that acquires and restores vintage streetcars along with the city’s iconic cable cars (whose underground cables differ from the overhead wires used to power streetcars). Back in 1976, the group was formed by three passionate individuals fighting to protect a historic trolley car facing destruction. Over the next several years, the group grew in size and influence. They became key supporters of the annual Historic Trolley Festivals, which brought vintage streetcars to Market Street every summer for more than 10 years.

The surroundings have changed on Market Street, but streetcars like these can still be seen every day on the F line.  [Source: 1937 photo from the San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library]  

 In 1995, the popularity of the streetcars led to the official opening of the F line on Market Street. It expanded to serve the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000. Now, around 20 streetcars-kept clean and shiny with the help of Market Street Railway volunteers-run every day on the F line.

Many cars running on the line today have been restored and painted in tribute to original streetcar lines  throughout  the United States. This  car, built in Minneapolis in 1946, was restored in D.C. Transit colors and debuted on Francisco streets this year:

One  streetcar painted in the historic SF color scheme made it to the big screen in 2008’s Milk. The film took place in 1978, when some of these original green and cream cars were still in operation. This car is now dedicated to the memory of Harvey Milk:


Several Italian streetcars also make appearances on the F line, including this 1928 car from Milan-one of several  in  the F line fleet:

To learn more about the historic cars currently running on the F line right now, see the Market Street Railway  website or be a tourist for a day and experience the real thing. (One more option: if you find yourself waiting for the J at night in the pouring rain, look particularly cold and wet as an out-of-service F approaches. It just might take pity on you, as it did for me, and take you safely home!)

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  1. […] to the weather, people and the ever changing city environment. I recommend getting on the old F train (I like the Italian one) headed toward the Castro to see the mural before itâ€â„¢s completely […]

  2. Valerie NYC says:

    Lovely post, Alison. Americans tend not to learn, remember and preserve the history of their own country or community. Then we travel to Europe and admire the infinite wonderful and perfectly restored monuments and documented history of the Old Continent ,-)

  3. Robin McBain says:

    I enjoyed this piece very much—history CAN be fun and functional!

  4. alison says:

    Great article! I did not know anything about the F line. Hummm now I think a trip to SF is in order!

  5. Sophie H says:

    Fun info about the streetcars! They do add a touch of vintage whimsy to Market Street and the Embarcadero.

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