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San Francisco Trolley Popular Again

July 25, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ They’re the streetcars named desirable _ again.

While tourists and residents alike ooh and ahh over the city’s famous cable cars, the clickety-clack of a rival has proven popular on the streets of San Francisco.

Vintage trolleys _ once close to extinction _ are a transportation workhorse slowly making a comeback here and around the nation.

Trolleys are reappearing in cities such as Portland, Ore., Dallas, Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C. In some cases, the trains have been credited for helping to revive moribund neighborhoods.

Electric trolleys were introduced in the late 1800s and signaled a new mobility for working-class people formerly confined to their neighborhoods. By 1917, there were nearly 45,000 miles of tracks nationwide.

San Francisco’s 17 cars were designed in the 1930s at the request of presidents of electric car companies in the United States and Canada who wanted standardized, improved, streamlined street cars.

That’s what they got _ cars that were among the sturdiest and most reliable transit vehicles ever made.

``They were built in an era when things were designed to last,″ said Mike Simonds, the shop foreman at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. ``Back then they didn’t even know how to spell `planned obsolescence.‴

Then, with the advent of gasoline-powered buses and underground subways, most cities gradually dropped trolleys. They still operate in Boston, Newark, N.J., and Toronto.

But only in New Orleans and San Francisco are the trolleys _ usually called streetcars by city natives _ a major transportation force.

In New Orleans, the 14.5-mile St. Charles line has been running since 1835 and remains one of the city’s busiest transit routes. San Francisco rescued several rusting cars for its 3.5-mile F-line, which began service in 1995 and accommodates some 7,600 riders each day.

``There’s a real tradition of rail transit here,″ said Dave Pharr, a trolley car fan. ``Almost everybody who was born and raised here rode to school or rode to work on a street car or a cable car and maybe still does.″

Today, the 50-year-old trolley cars prowl up and down Market Street, the main commercial artery of the city, and link the bus terminal, the Financial District and the Castro district, the heart of the city’s gay community.

So far, the sleek, steel-wheeled white cars, which draw 600 volts of electricity from overhead wires via antenna-like poles, have performed well. Like the cable cars which are pulled up and down hills by a wire rope snaking underneath the street, the trolleys also require grooved tracks.

For San Francisco, embracing vintage trolleys has also proven to be smart public policy. The city recently imported nine street cars from Italy for about $32,000 each; a new car costs more than $2 million.

Fans hope the classic trolleys become as popular with tourists as the cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge and the city’s fog.

Construction has started on an extension of the F-line that will allow street cars to run north to Fisherman’s Wharf and south to the new San Francisco Giants ballpark, which is slated to open in 2000.

``People will be able to come to town, get a nice dinner at the Wharf and take the street cars to the ballpark to watch the game,″ said Don Chee, the project manager for the F-line. ``That’ll be a nice evening, and they won’t have to worry about parking.″

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