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Red Cars Reborn

California and the West

Historic Trolleys Find a Home in San Francisco

August 02, 1998|VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Want to see an L.A. Dodgers pitching great in action? Go to San Francisco, where Orel Hershiser rules the mound.

How about some home-grown, Los Angeles musical talent? Try San Francisco, where Michael Tilson Thomas leads the symphony orchestra.

And to hitch a ride on one of L.A.'s fabled Red Cars? You guessed it--San Francisco, where trolleys painted the red, orange and gray of the Pacific Electric fleet rattle along the roadway.

"A good number of people from Los Angeles tell me about how they rode the Red Cars when they were young, and how much they miss them today," said Peter Erlich, a motorman on the Market Street F Line, the San Francisco Municipal Railway's historic streetcar line.

"They say they're really glad to see the Red Cars represented in our fleet," he said. "Even though they do have to come up here to ride them."

Ouch.

The F Line, which runs a 3.5-mile route along Market Street, is one of the city's most popular forms of public transportation. The cars operate on a different mechanism than the more famous cable cars and are only one of the area's mass transit options.

More than 7,000 people a day ride the 50-year-old historic cars, which run from the Castro district to the Transbay Terminal in the city's financial district.

Plans are in the works to expand the route to run along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf and the new Giants stadium. The fleet of 17 trolleys is painted in the colors of municipal rail lines long gone.

There's the black-and-cream of Kansas City, the green-striped yellow cars of Cincinnati, the green-and-cream of Philadelphia, and, in addition to the Red Car, the silver-striped Yellow Cars of the Los Angeles Railway. Yes, L.A.'s extinct streetcars are represented twice.

But there's good news for die-hard Angelenos loathe to cede a victory in the Fogland-Smogland rivalry. Although the F Line's Yellow and Red cars are the same rolling stock as L.A.'s originals, their wheels have never touched an inch of track in Los Angeles County.

"No, these are actually old cars from Philadelphia that the city bought and painted," said Dave Pharr, manager of the Duboce Streetcar Yard and a board member of Market Street Railway, a nonprofit group of rail fans.

"When the F Line first opened in 1995, we put out a little brochure that told the history of the cars and how they were from Philadelphia," Pharr said. "But the public didn't want to hear that. If they were riding the car painted like the Boston Elevated, then they wanted to believe it was the Boston El."

Electric trolleys, also called streetcars, came into use in 1888. Faster than cable cars and horse-drawn vehicles, they soon became the preferred form of public transportation. By 1918, more than 100,000 trolleys traveled 45,000 miles of track in U.S. cities. They triggered rapid urban growth and, by making a long commute available to the working class, helped create the nation's first suburbs.

After World War II, automobiles eclipsed the streetcars in popularity, particularly in Los Angeles. Although the demise of the city's Red and Yellow cars has been attributed to everything from an automobile industry conspiracy to plain shortsightedness, the end result is the same. Save for a couple of trolleys that reside in museums, the Red Cars were decommissioned and sold in the mid-'50s and the Yellow Cars in 1963.

Trolleys, named for the small round wheel that collected electricity from the overhead wire on the earliest models, differ from the cable cars, which are pulled by underground cables. They came in such a confusing array of models and sizes that, in 1935, in a bid to standardize the streetcars, the Presidents Conference Committee cars were introduced.

Today, those cars form the backbone of the Market Street F Line.

Much to the joy of rail buffs, the F Line also includes antique cars purchased from their cities of origin, including a 1934 open-topped "boat" car from Blackpool, England, two 1927 Japanese trolleys from Hiroshima and Osaka, and a 1928 tram from Melbourne, Australia.

Due to their fragility and the lack of replacement parts, the foreign cars run less frequently than the regular fleet.

However, the Orange Pumpkin car, imported from Milan, Italy, is about to get company. San Francisco has just bought nine more of the 1920s-era cars, plus two for spare parts. They should arrive by year's end.

Even with the additional work of milling the Italian cars' wheels to fit San Francisco's tracks, they're a steal. The Milanese cars cost about $32,000 each. New Breda streetcars, equipped with all sorts of electronic and computer technology, cost more than $2 million. Each.

"The Breda cars have up-to-date technology, and are extremely well-built," said Don Chee, senior project manager for the Municipal Railway. "You really can't compare them to the trolleys--it's like comparing apples to oranges."

Or Apples to Underwoods.

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