The MUNI of San Francisco


MUNI light rail at Balboa Park.

San Francisco: a city of rails and trails.  But definitely rails.

There are two types of “light rail” in San Francisco: the MUNI Metro light rail and the Market Street Railway service.  There is a third street-level rail service, the world-famous cable cars, but I will not speak too heavily on that.

About the Metro.  The Metro is a heavily street-based light rail system with 6 lines, the J, K, L, M, N, and T lines.  The T-Third Street line is an add-on to the Metro system, while the others were part of the original Metro system, created when 5 of the city’s heaviest streetcar lines into Downtown San Francisco were sent into a tunnel underneath Market Street in the late 1970s.  These lines were named the J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Oceanview, and N-Judah.  The K, L, and M lines meet at the West Portal station, at the west end of the tunnel, while the J and N lines joins the tunnel just west of Van Ness Station.  They all run in the downtown section of the tunnel from Van Ness to Embarcadero, making all stops much like a subway system.  Heading west from downtown, once they reach street level, all trains make all local stops on street level or on private rail alignments.  They function much like streetcars in that passengers board at bus stops, bus shelters, or pedestrian islands in the median of local streets.  Some stations such as SFSU on the M line have high-level platforms due to higher ridership numbers, but most stations are street-level.  In other words, MUNI Metro is like a subway downtown but a bus in the outlying areas of the city.  It keeps its streetcar roots in the neighborhoods but allows for speedy (relative), uninterrupted service in the central business district.

The tunnel that takes Metro trains along Market Street downtown is also the same tunnel that was dug for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) service.  The BART service was opened in 1972, but the Metro tunnel came afterwards, in the same tunnel shaft but one level above the BART trains.  This is probably one of the few dual-purpose tunnels in the United States (two others include the Market-Frankford/subway-surface tunnel in Center City and the 63rd Street tunnel carrying the (F) line and soon the Long Island Rail Road).  The BART system was ultra-modern at the time, built to withstand earthquakes and allowed for smooth operation into and out of San Francisco from the south and the East Bay communities.  The Metro was added around the same time, making Market Street the spine of transportation into and out of the downtown core.

About 20 years ago, the system was extended past the Market Street tunnel to run along part of the Embarcadero and along King Street to connect with the Caltrain Depot and AT&T Park (home of the San Francisco Giants).  The N line was chosen to run along the extension while the J, K, L, and M lines remained terminating at Embarcadero Station.  Here, the line is in the median of both the Embarcadero and King Street and all stations have high platforms much like in the subway.  The 4th and King stop is nearby the King Street Station, also known as the Caltrain Depot.  Caltrain is the commuter railroad that links the San Jose and San Francisco metropolitan areas.  The N line gives you unprecedented views of the East Bay as the line curves along the waterfront, especially upon exiting the tunnel near Folsom Station and see the base of the massive San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  Once you pass the bridge, you pass by AT&T Park and the vibrant community nearby before you get to the Caltrain Depot.

Just 7 years ago, the T line was added to the mix, replacing part of the very heavy but slow #15-Third Street bus line with rail service to connect with the existing Metro system.  The line runs from the southeast side of San Francisco to the Metro tunnel along 3rd Street, with Candlestick Park (home of the San Francisco 49ers) about a mile away.  The decision was made a few years back to combine the operations of the K and T lines so that K trains do not have to terminate at Embarcadero and, moreso, T trains do not have to terminate at Van Ness, delaying the entire tunnel discharging passengers.  Thus, K trains from Balboa Park go downtown and continue as T trains to Sunnydale and vice versa.

MUNI uses Breda high-floor light rail vehicles with movable steps for low-platform station access.  They are numbered in the 1400 and 1500 series and are used everywhere in the Metro system.  They have the capability to be operated by themselves via a CBTC-like system while in the tunnel (from West Portal to Embarcadero).  Once trains exit the tunnel, they can be switch to manual mode for street-running operation.  They are custom-ordered for this system due to other “standard” light rail cars not being suitable for use in this system.  They need the capability to run in low-platform environments like many trams and streetcars that Breda and other European manufacturers normally design, but they also have to work at high-platform stations such as West Portal, Embarcadero, and Van Ness.  There is a toggle switch on the cars so that operators can move the steps from the low-level to high-level position so that in the tunnel they operate with level boarding and in the street they operate like buses.

About the Market Street Railway.  This is a San Francisco hidden gem or sorts, simply because this is a tourist attraction that is often overshadowed by the cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Lombard Street.  The Market Street Railway, a MUNI service (now SFMTA), is a single streetcar line along Market Street and the Embarcadero with vintage streetcars from the 1900s through the 1950s.  Dubbed the F-Market and Wharves line, it was started in the 1980s, around the time when the last streetcar lines were either converted to buses, run as electric trolley buses, or diverted to the Market Street Metro tunnel.  Most of the cars on the line are 1940s and 1950s PCC cars, the most comfortable, quietest, swiftest streetcars of the day, although there are much older and louder cars that make special appearances.  The “Peter Witts,” as they are called for its chief engineer, are mainly from Milan, Italy, the largest operator of these cars…and they still have a bunch of them left!  There are oddball cars as well, some double-ended PCCs, as well as an open-top sightseeing streetcar from England and guest streetcars from around the world.  They chug along in the median of Market Street from Castro to downtown and then in the median of the Embarcadero from downtown to just east of Fisherman’s Wharf.  The cars use local streets in the Fisherman’s Wharf area where it turns around and heads back downtown.  A second line was supposed to be created, the E-Embarcadero line from Fisherman’s Wharf to King Street Station but was never operated despite the track connection between the F line and the current N and T lines.

For transit buffs, the entire MUNI system is railfan heaven, in terms of the cars themselves and the rights-of-way they travel on.  Other than the F line, my favorite in terms of scenery and right-of-way design is the J-Church.  The J line runs outside just prior to the Church Station, breaks off from the N line, and crosses the F line at Market and Church.  The J line is mostly street-running from Market Street to San Jose Avenue, except for the part where it practically runs up the steep hill alongside Dolores Park.  The views of the skyline are second to none, all accessible via public transit, made famous in movies and television including the opening credits to the TV show Full House.  After Dolores Park, the line comes back into street-running until San Jose Avenue where it runs along the median unobstructed by street crossings which are overpasses in this area.  The M line is another favorite, it’s the line that snakes through small residential streets, ends up in a median along 19th Avenue in the southwest part of the city, then goes through some more tree-lined small streets before it joins with the K line at West Portal.  The L Taraval and N Judah lines are favorites among railfans due to the street running in quiet residential streets that slope straight down towards the Pacific Coast.

The F line is the most enjoyable since it runs the old PCC and Peter Witt cars most often, with different paint schemes for the transit systems that ran these cars in the 1930s through 1970s.  The Peter Witt cars are in three different Milan transit schemes, and PCCs represent various transit color schemes from Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, Louisville, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and many more cities.  There is also a Melbourne (Australia) streetcar, a New Orleans streetcar on loan, and others cars from different parts of the world.  Visit for more detailed information.  The website gives you pictures and details of every car they operate as well as a real-time look as to what’s operating on the line.  The cars are randomly placed in service on the F line, as needed for regular service.  You can take the F line to the Castro community, where gay pride is strongest nationwide, to Powell Street for a connection to the cable car system or for your shopping pleasure, or to the Embarcadero for sights and sounds along the bay.  Or, you can take it to Fisherman’s Wharf, a combination of the South Street Seaport, Coney Island, the Central Park Zoo, and the Santa Monica Pier, all located at Pier 39.  The F line is more than just a rolling museum, it’s also a vital transit service for San Franciscans as an alternative to buses, trolleybuses, or the Metro.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, especially when the fog starts rolling away, revealing a green and white urban oasis with zero-emission electric transit, clean diesel buses for mobility in other areas of the city, and steep hills for unparalleled views of the city and surrounding Bay Area.  The Metro hits many areas of the city and allows them to reach downtown without having to take two or three buses or deal with an hour-long bus ride.  The tunnel helps out immensely by avoiding the traffic and frequent crossing that the F line has to deal with, but that doesn’t make Metro perfect, either, since the line does have to deal with the delays and crossings on all streets leading to the tunnel.  Usually it’s the N line that experiences these issues, so much so that during peak hours, there is the NX-Judah Express bus which runs along the north side of the city and bypasses the worst parts of the line.  The tunnel running isn’t perfect either because the delays experienced on the K, L, and M lines combined with issues on the N line causes residual delays elsewhere, leaving service fragmented.  Trains that would go past Embarcadero are spaced out farther apart and outbound trains are bunched up, angering riders and raising tempers.  The automatic train control that is in effect in the tunnels doesn’t work perfectly either, supposedly never has, so trains stall and cause delays for the trains behind them.

Nevertheless, I can’t wait to visit San Francisco again…it’s been about 6 years.  My last visits were 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.  Quite a bit has changed, but most of the rail lines, apart from the K/T and the NX Judah Express operation, remains the same.  I usually refer to MUNI’s operations by letter/number and name, such as the J-Church line and the 66-Quintara bus or the F-Market car.  MUNI refers to them as such, thus I keep the nomenclature for consistency and for ease of memory.  I guess that shows how much I love the system, and the city itself, if I refer to transit operations by name…and I understand the layout of the city by its transit system.  I have always said the best way to visit a city is through its transit system, whether it’s buses, streetcars, subways, or even taxis and cable cars.  San Francisco is no different, since there is transit service within a 1/4 mile of every resident, and the street maps is also its transit map.

I did mention a blip about the cable cars, but they speak for themselves.  They are the crown jewel of the San Francisco public transit system in that they are hugely historic, being the oldest continuously-operated cable car system in the world, with cars that closely resemble cars used here in the 1870s.  They are cable cars because they get their power from cables embedded underneath the street they operate.  The cars aren’t powered by the cables, but merely pulled by them, in order to negotiate steep hills at more than a 15% grade.  Three lines of the original system remain: California Street, Powell-Mason, and Powell-Hyde, the latter personally my favorite of the three because of its gorgeous views.  The current cars are the oldest known and last surviving cars of their kind in the country, if not the world.  Check here for more information.

Now, on to the next one…San Jose; even though I haven’t ridden enough of the system to fully critique it, I have visited several of its stations via its bus network.

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