Muni memories -- Nostalgia for a crappier, more poorly run era

They don't make 'em like that anymore -- thank God! Photo by Joe Eskenazi

If you’re ever caught on a J- or N-train idling for 25 minutes at the mouth of the Duboce Ave. tunnel (without air conditioning on a sweltering day and trapped between a homeless man and a cyclist) take a quick gander up toward the Mint. Things could be worse – and they have been. The proof is right before your eyes.

Slowly rusting and gathering graffiti artists’ tags is one of the last old orange-and-white Muni trains, which creaked through San Francisco streets from 1976 to 2001.

“Nobody really knows” why Muni decided to stick this relic-on-wheels by the side of the tracks, said Rick Laubscher, the president of the Market Street Railway. Maggie Lynch, a Muni spokeswoman, added it may have been kept around because “San Francisco is a sentimental city.”

If so, Muni’s nostalgia for the Boeing-Vertol U.S. Standard Light Rail Vehicle is akin to Ford having a soft spot for the Edsel.

When Muni opted to replace its fleet of aging PCC streetcars in the 1970s, the federal government made the City an offer it couldn’t refuse: It would purchase its trains from Boeing and support the nascent American streetcar-manufacturing industry or receive no federal funds. S.F. officials complied rather than wake up with train parts in their beds.

While Boeing has a good thing going with the 747, it had never before manufactured a streetcar – and it showed. The cars derailed on tight turns, the motors and doors gave out and the complicated electrical systems were a mess. And that was just when they were running, or even present: San Francisco received its promised 1976 shipment in 1982.

If you think of the PCC cars as the Saturn V rockets that carried our astronauts to the moon, then compare the Boeings to the Space Shuttles which were supposedly more inexpensive and high-tech. In the end, though, they were poorly designed and impossible to maintain (though they rarely, if ever, exploded upon takeoff).

Boston, in fact, successfully sued Boeing due to its mounting maintenance costs. In a move certain to have boosted morale among San Franciscans, Muni purchased several dozen of Boston’s castoff cars and pressed them back into service.

"Sittin' by the dock of the Bay, wastin' time..." Photo by Joe Eskenazi

The orange-and-white Boeings were phased out between 1998 and 2001 in favor of the current trains, which are manufactured in Italy by the Breda corporation.

While one Muni driver told me that the lone Boeing could end up back in service just like the streetcars on the F-line, I wouldn’t bet on it. Like so many feats of engineering and architecture from the 1970s, its aesthetics pale in comparison to its forbears (face it, which is prettier: this or this?)

What’s more, the F-line trolleys “are simple to fix and very reliable,” said Laubscher. “The Boeing cars are not reliable. And they never were.”

And so, the rusting train sits amidst the weeds awaiting Muni’s next move. It brings to mind a variation of the parting line the white-suited French archaeologist Belloq gave to Indiana Jones before sealing him in a tomb:

"Farewell, Boeing. Who knows? In 1,000 years, even you may be worth something.”

--Joe Eskenazi

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