Q&A with “On Track” author Rick Laubscher

OTRAcover_web800pxRick is the president of Market Street Railway and a longtime railfan. I recently spoke with Rick about his new book, On Track: A Field Guide to San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars & Cable Cars, a guidebook that can teach anyone and everyone—train enthusiasts and SF locals included—a thing or two about these beautiful and practical forms of public transit.

MC: You fell in love with streetcars as a child, when your mother took you downtown on an “iron monster” through the Twin Peaks Tunnel.  How did you go from this childhood obsession to being president of the Market Street Railway?

RL: I’ve always been interested in public transit in general, because it’s essential in making San Francisco the livable city it is. When I started my career, as a broadcast journalist, I covered Muni and learned a lot about its operations, both positive and things that could be improved. After leaving journalism for a corporate job, though, I was free to be an advocate; and when I saw the opportunity to revive streetcars on the surface of Market Street, I jumped at it, with the strong support of my employer at the time, Bechtel. Once we had the Trolley Festival demonstration service running, it was clear that a nonprofit support group would be helpful to making that service permanent. That’s how I got involved with Market Street Railway.

What is Market Street Railway, anyhow? Is it part of Muni?

Market Street Railway is an independent, volunteer-based organization that serves as Muni’s nonprofit preservation partner. Our volunteers help publicize the historic streetcar service, provide maps and historic information on board the streetcars, and even help keep the cars clean while in service. We also operate the popular San Francisco Railway Museum across from the Ferry Building, telling the story of how efficient public transit built the city we love today.

What are some popular misconceptions about historic streetcars?

Some people seem to think they’re way more expensive to operate than other types of transit, but that’s simply not true. Maybe they think something that looks so good and is so much fun to ride should cost more to operate.

Some people also confuse Market Street Railway’s role with that of Muni. The transit agency owns and operates the historic streetcars, just as they do the cable cars. The streetcars are an integral part of the city’s transit system, used by thousands of commuters from the Castro and Upper Market neighborhoods and many Fisherman’s Wharf workers. They’re essential to mobility and commerce on their route, and in fact replaced regular Muni bus routes (more than doubling their ridership, by the way). What Market Street Railway does is help Muni with things like acquiring additional historic streetcars, plus signage, marketing, and even keeping the streetcars clean while in service. And we tell the story of the central role transit played in building the San Francisco we love today, and how important it still is to keep our city livable.

One thing I really like about On Track is that, in addition to being a comprehensive field guide, it also provides a history of public transit in San Francisco that is integral to the history of the city itself. How have San Francisco’s cable car and streetcar lines shaped the city?

People today take public transit for granted. But when San Francisco was a young city, public transit was integral to shaping the development of neighborhoods. For example, you’ll notice that on the hill between the Castro District and Noe Valley, the homes are older and a little grander on Castro Street than on parallel streets. That’s because a cable car line was built all the way from the Ferry Building up Market Street and over Castro in the 1880s, speeding the development of the blocks along the way. Later on, capital investments like the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the Sunset Tunnel opened up the entire southwest quadrant of the city to residential development. Fast connections to downtown made the Sunset and Parkside districts grow. Even today, the new light rail line on Third has helped accelerate development in Mission Bay and Dogpatch.

I think it’s really cool that you wrote this book for not only tourists and railfans, but also the people who live in the city. What’s something about streetcars and cable cars that might surprise even lifelong San Franciscans?

What we now call “public transit” started as a for-profit industry. Nineteenth-century transit systems in America were all privately owned, including San Francisco’s. Companies competed for passengers along parallel streets, with city government’s only real role being to grant franchises to the companies to put tracks in the streets. (By the way, that’s why the Richmond District still has parallel bus service on every other east-west block. It’s partly a legacy of competing companies more than one hundred years ago.)

The first American transit operation owned by a big city government didn’t start up until 1912—and yes, it happened here, with Muni. Many at the time considered government ownership of public utilities to be “socialist.” Here, it was part of the Progressive Movement.

Today, with all U.S. transit agencies receiving large tax subsidies, it’s hard to imagine that it was once possible for private transit companies to pay what was then a middle-class wage to their workers, charge a nickel a ride, and still make a profit.  But that’s the way it was.

What do you want to see happen next with San Francisco’s streetcars and cable cars?

I want to find the time to actually ride them more often!

Seriously, Market Street Railway has a strategic vision for the historic streetcars that includes a second line, the E-Embarcadero stretching first from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Giants ballpark and Caltrain along the waterfront, using existing tracks (service on this part will start next year), then extended on both ends, to Fort Mason to the west, using an existing historic railroad tunnel and along the existing Third Street light rail line to the south, providing better service to the fast growing Mission Bay and Dogpatch neighborhoods, the growing UCSF Mission Bay Campus and the new Warriors Arena.

We have helped Muni acquire additional streetcars to restore as demand grows, and we’d like to see some of the most historic unrestored streetcars fixed up soon.

We’d also like to see some changes made that would let both the streetcars and cable cars run more frequently and efficiently, especially the streetcars on Market Street.  We’re active in efforts to achieve these things.

Admit it: even though all the streetcars and cable cars are beautiful, surely there’s a first among equals for you. Which is your favorite, and why?

From a history standpoint, my favorite is Muni’s Number 1. It’s amazing to me that a transit agency still has the very first vehicle it owned, more than a century later. This is the very streetcar that Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph personally piloted out Geary Street in 1912 to open America’s very first municipally owned big city transit line. I’m proud that our advocacy led to its complete restoration a few years ago, just in time for Muni’s centennial.

From a fun standpoint, my favorites are the two open-topped “boat trams,” built for Blackpool, England’s seaside resort in 1934. My then-employer, Bechtel, helped Muni acquire its first one in the 1980s, and a generous grant from the Thoresen Foundation allowed us to acquire its twin from Blackpool last year and donate it to Muni. All you have to do is watch people’s faces as they cruise along Market Street or The Embarcadero in one of these boats—or watch the smiles on passersby as they see the boats glide by and hear the jaunty toots from their whistles—and you’ll see why I love those cars. They provide the ultimate joy ride!