San Francisco, CalTrain and ACE

I woke in my hotel on Market St in San Francisco and had a delicious breakfast of pancakes in the dining room. The large windows of the dining room faced Market St, and I was able to watch the passing parade of historic trams on the Muni F Line as I ate. The San Francisco Muni F Line runs from Fisherman’s Wharf, along the Embarcadero, down Market St and to the Castro district. It is run exclusively by vintage trams, mostly PCC cars from throughout the USA.

PCC car 1058 in Chicago livery stand at a stop in Market St

PCC car 1058 in Chicago livery stand at a stop in Market St

PCC (President’s Conference Committee) streetcars (trams) were developed in the 1930s to keep tramways competitive against the increasing reliability and popularity of buses. The Presidents of the electric railways throughout the USA got together and decided that a smoother, faster, quieter and more comfortable tram was required. This tram would be mass produced and would become the standard around the country. The resulting design became very popular and proved to be reliable and economical, with over 5000 built between 1936 and 1952. The majority of PCC cars were built with a driving cab at only one end and passenger doors only on the right hand side, meaning that all stops must be on the same side, and a turning loop is required at the end of each route (however some variants were built double ended and/or with doors on both sides). More information is available at Wikipedia.

PCC Car 1071 rusn along Market St at dusk. 1071 is in Minneapolis - St Paul livery

PCC Car 1071 rusn along Market St at dusk. 1071 is in Minneapolis – St Paul livery

As well as a large fleet of PCC cars, the F Line uses trams from around the world. There are Witt cars from Milan (Italy), W class trams from Melbourne (Australia), as well as trams from Portugal, England, Japan and Switzerland. The PCC cars are painted in liveries that at some stage were used by cities which operated PCC cars throughout North America. The F Line has its own website (www.streetcar.org), which includes a real time interactive map of which trams are running on the route, and their current location. Although the line is mostly for tourists, standard Muni fares apply, and Clipper Card (the Bay Area’s transport smartcard) is accepted.

A W2 class tram from Melbourne, Australia runs along The Embarcadero, followed by a Witt car from Milan, Italy

A W2 class tram from Melbourne, Australia runs along The Embarcadero, followed by a Witt car from Milan, Italy

I couldn’t resist taking a ride on one of the beautifully restored vintage trams, so I caught a Fisherman’s Wharf bound tram outside my hotel. The fare for a single trip was US$2, and I paid the Driver as I entered tram 1061. The 1948 PCC car number 1061 was painted in Pacific Electric livery of red and orange and it trundled up Market St towards The Embarcadero. We travelled past the Ferry Building and into the terminus at Fisherman’s Wharf. I left tram 1061, and stood near the terminus for about an hour, watching the passing parade of trams, before boarding a 1928 Witt car from Milan (number 1811). I headed back to the corner of Market and 4th St, to catch one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars.

PCC Car 1061 in Pacific Electric "Red Car" livery stands in Market St, followed by an electric Muni trolley bus.

PCC Car 1061 in Pacific Electric “Red Car” livery stands in Market St, followed by an electric Muni trolley bus.

San Francisco has 3 operational cable car lines; Powell/Hyde, Powell/Mason and California. The name of the line reflects the streets that the line predominantly runs along. The Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason both begin their journey at the corner of Market and Mason Streets and share the same tracks for about half of their route, until they diverge at the corner of Powell & Washington (near the Cable Car Museum). The Powell lines run mostly north/south, while the California line runs east/west along California St. The routes cross each other at the corner of Powell and California, at the top of Nob Hill. The Powell cable cars are unidirectional, and must be turned at the end of each trip. California line cable cars are larger and double ended, not requiring turning. The cable cars run on Cape Narrow gauge track (3’6″), and at the corner of Market and Powell streets (and also California and Market Streets, there are 3 track gauges within 1 block; 3’6″ (Cable Cars), 4’8½” (SF Muni Metro and F line), 5’6″ (BART).

The turntable for Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason cable cars at the corner of Powell and Market Streets

The turntable for Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason cable cars at the corner of Powell and Market Streets

At Powell terminus (corner of Powell and Market Streets), I joined the long queue of tourists waiting for a cable car, and watched a couple of cars turned by hand on the wooden turntable. After about 15 minutes I reached the front of the queue and boarded a Powell/Hyde car. We set off at the stately pace of 15 km/h, climbing San Francisco’s steep streets and pausing to let other passengers on and off. The 3.4km journey took just under 20 minutes, and we were soon a the terminus at the corner of Hyde and Beach Streets near Fisherman’s Wharf. I was feeling cold; although it was spring in San Francisco, it was much cooler than it had been in Southern California. The journey on the open air cable car had been quite chilly and I had not brought a coat from home (Australia) so I bought a jacket at one of the many souvenir shops in Jackson St.

A Powell/Hyde cable car

A Powell/Hyde cable car

I wanted to visit Alcatraz the next day, so I set about finding where to buy tickets. I didn’t have far to look, as all along Jackson St were ticket agents for various San Francisco tourist attractions. I had not been aware that there was a daily quota for visitors to Alcatraz Island, and the first few agents I asked had run out of tickets for the next day. The third agent I asked had just a few left, and I was given strict instructions to be at the ferry terminal at 9:20 the next morning to check in, or I would miss my place and forfeit my ticket.

A queue of Powell/Hyde cable cars at the corner of Hyde and Beach streets near Fisherman's Wharf

A queue of Powell/Hyde cable cars at the corner of Hyde and Beach streets near Fisherman’s Wharf

After lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf, I took another F Line tram; this time PCC car 1052 in the very bright yellow and orange livery of Los Angeles Railway. I travelled around to the SF Railway Museum at Don Chee Way tram stop near the ferry building, which has a modest museum dedicated to San Francisco’s trams, with a gift shop. The museum also has an information centre staffed by helpful and knowledgeable volunteers. With free entry, the museum is well worth a look, even if it is just for a chat with the volunteers.

PCC Car 1052 stands at the Fisherman's Wharf terminus. this car is in Los Angeles Railway livery.

PCC Car 1052 stands at the Fisherman’s Wharf terminus. this car is in Los Angeles Railway livery.

From the museum, I walked down to the Market/Main Muni Metro stop. The Muni Metro is San Francisco’s light rail service, with trams running on 6 lines throughout the San Francisco area. Routes have letter designations (J, K, L, M, N, T) and are named after the street that they operate on for most of their route (in the tradition of San Francisco cable car routes). All routes run in a tunnel beneath Market St in the down-town area, while the tracks outside the down-town area are a combination of street centre reserved track and on street running. The F Line is linked to the Muni Metro system, with historic trams running along part of the J Line to reach the Green Yard depot near Balboa Park Muni Metro station.

A Muni Metro tram outside 4th St Station on a very wet spring day

A Muni Metro tram outside 4th St Station on a very wet spring day

I caught the Muni Metro to the 4th St & King/Caltrain stop, which is outside the 4th Street station where Caltrain services to San Jose depart. The weather had turned from cold and clear, to freezing and wet, and I rushed into the Caltrain station to escape the rain. I purchased a ticket, and walked around the station taking a few photographs before my San Jose train departed. I had timed my journey, so I could take the last ACE train for the evening from San Jose to Stockton, where I would have a 16 minute connect/ion for the last Amtrak California San Joaquin service from Stockton back to Oakland. What could go wrong with a plan like that?

2 MP36PH locomotives and a F40PH locomotive stand at Caltrain's 4th St station in San Francisco

2 MP36PH locomotives and a F40PH locomotive stand at Caltrain’s 4th St station in San Francisco on a wet day

I caught a limited express service to San Jose hauled by an F40PH locomotive with 5 Nippon Sharyo Bi-level gallery cars in tow. I boarded a car, and was surprised to find that much of the lower level had no seats; the area instead had bicycle racks. There were 2 such cars on the train (as indicated by the yellow sign on the locomotive).

A CalTrain F40PH locomotive stands at the front of a set of Nippon Sharyo Bi-livel gallery cars, ready to depart 4th St (San Francisco) for San Jose

A Caltrain F40PH locomotive stands at the front of a set of Nippon Sharyo Bi-livel gallery cars, ready to depart 4th St (San Francisco) for San Jose

We pulled smoothly out of 4th St Station on time at 15:37, and made our way past San Francisco airport and through Milbrae (the southern terminus of the BART Red Line) and were soon speeding along the San Francisco Peninsula. We made stops all down the Peninsula to San Jose, where mercifully, the rain had stopped.

An Altamont Commuter Express (now known as Altamont Corridor Express) train stands in San Jose yard, waiting to approach the platform

An ACE train stands in San Jose yard, waiting to approach the platform. The train is being led by a Bombardier Cab Control Car

I had about 35 minutes between my Caltrain service arriving, and my ACE service departing. There were plenty of trains to photograph, including my white, purple and blue Altamont Commuter Express (since renamed Altamont Corridor Express) service to Stockton. The train was standing at platform 1, and had a Bombardier bi-level cab car at the front, 4 intermediate Bombardier bi-level cars, and an EMD F40-PH2C locomotive pushing at the rear. After buying my ticket at the Amtrak ticket office, I boarded the train and found that as with the Caltrain service, the lower level of some cars had been fitted with bike racks.

An EMD F40PH locomotive stands at the rear of the 17:35 ACE train from San Jose to Stockton

An EMD F40PH locomotive stands at the rear of the 17:35 ACE train from San Jose to Stockton

The sun was starting to set as our train pulled out of Stockton at 17:35. At the time I travelled (April 2012) this was the last service for the day, since then, an additional service has since been added, departing San Jose at 18:38. ACE runs through the area known as Silicone Valley, and workers from various IT companies boarded the train at Santa Clarita and Great America (many using the bike racks provided). After leaving Silicone Valley, the line passes through the Altamont Pass in the Daiblo range, but unfortunately by this time it was dark.

The lower level of an ACE bicycle car

The lower level of an ACE bicycle car

When the conductor came around to check my ticket, I asked if the Amtrak train used the same platform as our train at Stockton. The conductor gave me a confused look, and asked what I meant. I told him that when we arrived at Stockton at 19:47, I planned to take the 20:03 San Joaquin service back to Oakland. The conductor looked concerned and politely informed me that there are 2 railway stations in Stockton; the ACE station and Amtrak station. They are about 1.3 miles apart, and even if I walked fast, it would probably take about 30 minutes (I had 16 minutes from arrival of the ACE train to the departure of the last San Joaquin service to Oakland for the night). The conductor continued on to say that even if I did have time to walk it, he wouldn’t advise it, as I would have to walk through a bad area of town at night. I thought for a moment, and asked if he could call ahead and have a taxi waiting for us at Stockton, he said he would arrange something.

An ACE train has just arrived at Stockton on a cold wet evening

An ACE train has just arrived at Stockton on a cold wet evening

At Stockton, it was raining again. We arrived on time, but I still only had 16 minutes to make the San Joaquin service. I looked around for the conductor, who came rushing up and said that he had arranged with his supervisor to leave straight away, and he would drive me to the Amtrak station himself. He told me to wait outside the station and he would meet me there. A couple of minutes later, he pulled up in his car and I jumped in with 11 minutes before my train back to Oakland. As is often the case when you’re in a hurry, all of the traffic lights we encountered were red. The minutes ticked by, but we finally arrived at the Amtrak station with 4 minutes to spare! I rushed up to the ticket machine, and my ticket was printing as the train pulled in. I boarded the double deck California Car at 20:02, and we departed a minute later, on time at 20:03. A big thank you from me to the helpful people at ACE Rail!!

The California Car on the San Joaquin was comfortable; very similar to the Surfliner Car I had travelled from Oceanside to Los Angeles in several days before. The train stopped at Antioch and Martinez on the way back to Oakland and the conductor was quite the performer; announcing every stop in a lively voice, and adding on an irreverent fact about each town (which may or may not have been true). Announcements such as “Next station Antioch, home to the baseball team the Antioch Anteaters” or “Martin-ez, next stop Martinez, birthplace of the Martini”. I bought a sandwich from the cafe car for dinner, and found that they sold BART tickets as well. As I planned to catch BART back to San Francisco, I bought one.

I left the San Joaquin train at Richmond station, which has a connection directly to BART (I had learnt my lesson the night before at Jack London Square), and I went downstairs to enter the BART station. I put my pre-purchased ticket in the barrier, which rejected it with the message “see attendant”. I found the station attendant, who was very uninterested and unhelpful. She scanned the ticket and said that it was defective, before walking away. I called after her and I asked what I should do, and she reluctantly returned to the ticket window and told me to return it to the place of purchase, before walking away again. I called her back a third time, asked how I travelled right now, she rolled her eyes and I told me to buy another ticket at the ticket machine. I bought a new ticket and headed down to the platforms. I must have just missed a train, because I had to wait almost 20 minutes. Finally, my Red Line train arrived, and after a 40 minute trip I was back in San Francisco.

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