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Trip Report

Transit-riding in the San Francisco area

March 3-9, 2006


March 3

An early-morning flight on United Airlines (Harrisburg-Chicago-San Francisco) gave me a smooth ride and a late morning touchdown at SFO. My base for the next seven nights would be the Palomar Hotel at 4th and Market Streets. Expedia gave me a good deal since I booked flight, hotel, and airport van service together. As you will read, the hotel's location is transit-friendly.

March 4

Since I would be sampling San Francisco's excellent and caloric cuisine, I decided to get some exercise. Although the weather was dreary and windy, I took off on foot up Market Street toward the Embarcadero, the city's waterfront. The old Ferry Terminal at the end of Market Street and the Embarcadero is a bustling transit hub serving catamaran ferries from east bay communities and the vintage trolley line (# F). The terminal also has food (wine, cheese, & seafood) and craft stalls. Public restrooms are nice and clean. After watching ferry passengers debark, I strode toward Fisherman's Wharf. Most of the trolleys on the F line were Peter Witts from Milan, Italy. In the afternoon, PCCs became plentiful.

In the Fisherman's Wharf area souvenir stands, electronic stores, and touristy restaurants were doing a booming business. Several long lines of patrons eager to set foot on the abandoned Alcatraz federal prison stretched out to the street from boat tour ticket windows. I bought cinnamon roll and coffee at Boudin Bakery. An interesting feature is the overhead conveyor belt that brings freshly baked bread from the bake area to the retail section. Large plate glass windows provide good views of passing trolleys.

Since my coffee and sweet break had fortified me, I assaulted Russian Hill. The steep climb was six blocks up Leavenworth Street. No panting, but my legs sure ached. I was now at the bottom of San Francisco's famous zigzag, Lombard Street. Parallel steps allowed me to ascend the one block section of this route which allows cars to descend. Very expensive houses line this street because of the spectacular view it affords of San Francisco Bay. I guess property owners must get used to gawkers traipsing by at all hours of the day and night. The sun had burst through the clouds by the time I reached Hyde Street which I crossed so I could board an in-bound cable car.

After a ten minute wait, the reassuring clang-clang told me that a Powell Street-destined car would be cresting Russian Hill. After the gripman dropped the cable and locked the brakes, I climbed aboard, finding a seat in the saloon section as tourists from Fisherman's Wharf were hogging the open air section. Ding-Ding went the conductor's bell, and the car started to move at the cable rate of 9 MPH. I gave the conductor exact fare, $5.00, even though he will make change. Lurch! Ka-bang, the car made a left turn onto Washington Street which is a narrow one way route. The car house and museum, admission to which is free, is at Washington & Mason Streets.

I had an engagement so I did not alight. At Powell Street, I paused to watch the crew reverse the car on a turntable. Hordes of passengers were in queue waiting to board. A block and a half walk returned me to the Palomar.

March 5

I had to go to Carmel on Sunday. No train service is available to this quaint town near Monterey, but I took note during the drive in of rusted tracks that the Transit Authority of Monterrey County plans to use for future commuter service from Fort Ord. Certainly the service would be viable as highway 156 has heavy traffic. I can imagine what the volume is on a weekday!

March 6

On Monday afternoon, I dropped $1.50 (exact fare) into the fare box of a diesel-powered bus (Route 71) which traveled along Market Street away from the bay before veering off onto Haight Street. After ascending a couple of hills, the bus leveled off in the Haight-Ashbury district of flower-child fame. Shops selling CDs, ty-dyed tee shirts, beads, smoking paraphernalia and other accouterments of the "tune-in-turn-on-drop-out" generation were evident; but so were upscale houses. Locals tell me that gentrification abounds in San Francisco. I exited at Golden Gate Park and commenced a six and one half mile walk-down hill, thank goodness-to Ocean Beach.

Tide was out so there was lots of hard-packed sand on which sail-powered three-wheeled go-carts could operate at speed. Para-sailers in wet suits were riding the Pacific's waves despite numerous signs warning "dangerous undertows." There was an ocean breeze, but the sun was out and its warmth counteracted the windchill. I hadn't eaten since 8:30 and my watch read 1:30, so I decided to play tourist and have lunch at the Cliff House.

Clliff House's website shows a planned expansion of this San Francisco landmark that has been around for more than 100 years. In fact, when cable cars were private companies, there was a dedicated line to the restaurant called the Ferries and Cliff House Railway. A short history of the restaurant on the menu does not mention that fact. Boo. Hiss. The National Park Service owns the property and contracts out the food service. Note: Pay attention to your restaurant tab. Hotels and a number of restaurants, including Cliff House, automatically add a 17% gratuity.

Cliff House is not at the top of the cliff, so I walked up the serpentine roadway along the headland until I came to Geary St. where, after depositing a $1.50 in the fare box, I sat down inside an articulated electric trolley bus. San Francisco has an extensive twin wire system featuring a fascinating overhead of cross-overs and switches. The complexity enables the electrics to penetrate numerous neighborhoods. After about forty blocks, I pulled the "stop" cord and exited at Powell Street so I could walk back to the hotel. The bus would terminate at the Transbay intermodal terminal at Fremont and Mission Streets. The terminal once hosted electric interurbans from the East Bay. An ambitious plan is in the works to terminate commuter rail there.

After a shower and a change of clothes, I boarded, outside the hotel, a # 30 ETB with a CalTrain destination. Alas, the ETB turned away from the CalTrain commuter rail station and stopped a half block away and across the street. Fortunately, San Francisco is a pedestrian-friendly city as autos will wait for you to pass so long as you cross at crosswalks.

Amtrak, under contract to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, operates the former Southern Pacific commuter line that runs from San Francisco to San Jose and Gilroy. I bought a ticket for Mountain View (home of Google) in zone 3 from a clerk wearing an Amtrak uniform. The station is a bare-bones operation featuring "sun room" aluminum and glass architecture. Platform canopies provide a modicum of shelter for those boarding the first two stainless steel double decker non-tapered gallery cars. I had picked a Baby Bullet train which would make only four stops and bring me to Mountain View in 42 minutes as opposed to a local run that would span 1 hour and seven minutes. My proof-of-payment ticket was good for four hours. Midway through the trip an Amtrak conductor passed through checking tickets. As the train zipped along on welded rail, I smugly observed autos clogged in traffic on a freeway and local streets. At Mountain View, I climbed into a car that took me to a dinner engagement.

After a delightful evening, I returned to Mountain View station. I bought a return ticket from a machine which was very easy to use unlike the clunky and unreliable equipment at DC Metro and Septa. While waiting in the chilly night air, some guy who looked like a typical kid brother approached me. On his head he wore a turban made of green and gold balloons. In a voice somewhat akin to the sound one gets from inhaling helium during balloon design, the "kid" asked if I would like him to make a balloon for me or my "sweetie." I said "no thanks." Fortunately, a distant headlight of a cab car told me the last train of the night was arriving. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. The air gong warned passengers to stand clear as the engineer brought the diesel train, in push mode, to a stop.

I decided to sit in the gallery of the first car, but found the space confining so I returned to the lower level. The train was a local so we stopped at every station. At one stop, a passenger boarded with an over-sized suitcase. Behind him was a nurse, stethoscope draped over her neck. The two passed me. All of a sudden the relative quiet of the gallery car changed when the nurse exploded with a string of Anglo-Saxon expletives. "#@%&*!......and besides I'm a woman. Have a little courtesy! Get a life you #@%&*!" There was some kind of weak apology from the man who had apparently touched her inappropriately with either his hand, suitcase, or both. The nurse, determined to carry the issue further, strode passed me and told the conductor that the suitcase guy had violated her space and that the conductor should deal with the matter. The conductor listened patiently and then walked to the back of the car. The woman sat down behind me. I don't know what happened after that.

Later balloon turban who had boarded with me in Mountain View reappeared and began to have an animated conversation with the conductor who was standing in the vestibule. Shortly before the next station stop, the balloon guy took the PA system microphone from a bulkhead wall and proceeded to announce: "Burrrrrrlinggame. Next station stop is Burrrrrlinggame." When the train stopped, the conductor opened the double doors to the platform and then closed them after passengers alighted. This routine continued until Bayshore where the balloon guy gave up the mic and exited, sans turban. I watched the conductor stow the elaborate balloon turban in a vestibule cabinet. Ready for morning rush? Who's to say?

Since I was in the cab-car, I looked out the "railfan window" to observe the train snake dancing through special-work at CalTrain terminal. We tied up on time at 12:01 AM. I caught a cab back to the hotel because I did not want to wait for a trackless trolley. Besides, San Francisco cabby's, in my experience, know where they're going, are glad to have your business, and always appreciate a tip.

March 8

Wednesday night, I had a dinner meeting in Pleasanton, east of San Francisco. One of the guests drove me over the Golden Gate Bridge. After a detour through the trendy towns of Sausalito and Tiburon (Both have passenger ferry service to San Francisco.), we arrived in Pleasanton around 6:30 PM. In the center of the freeway into town is the blue line for BART.

The BART station is an elevated structure that ends in Pleasanton. Taxis and local buses connect underneath. An uncomplicated ticketing machine demanded $4.95. I paid $5.00 and receive a nickel and fare card which I would surrender at Powell Street station. I entered a fare gate which recorded my trip and then returned the farecard. An enumerator above the platform announced that the next train would depart at 10:18 PM. This time, I would be in the last car. Considering that BART trains operate on five foot guage track, the accommodations were commodious; and my seat was comfortable. A chime sounded, and the doors closed. We were off. Night time precluded any sightseeing, though I did note that most of the ride was either in the center of a freeway or elevated through Oakland. I estimated our speed at 60 miles per hour. Traffic on the freeway passed us, but only, according to locals, because of speeding. Autos racing at seventy-five or eighty miles per hour speeds are not uncommon. The four car train ducked under the bay, and in no time, I was at Powell Street where I exited for the short walk to my hotel.

March 9

Rainy and foggy weather delayed me for two hours in Chicago, otherwise, United Airlines rendered pleasant flights.

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