The Sound of The Underground

Davy Carren
Jul 7, 2017 · 15 min read
Photo: Getty

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The constant clangor of Market Street’s four lanes of trolley-car tracks was once an unavoidable fact of life for San Franciscans. Called “The Roar of the Four,” this constant obstreperous racket has since been moved underground into a subway tunnel running beneath Market, part of a light rail/streetcar hybrid transportation system called the MUNI Metro. Instead of clogging up street traffic, as they had for 50-plus years, the streetcars, in the 1970s, were turned into light rail vehicles (LRVs) that today clog up only the poorly planned subway tunnels, where red lights still stop them when too many trains are running on the same track at the same time, which is often.

The Muni Metro system consists of 71 miles of standard-gauge track, seven light rail lines (six regular lines and one peak-hour line), three tunnels, nine subway stations, 24 surface stations, and 87 surface stops. It’s the third-busiest light rail system in the country.

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BART was supposed to run express trains on the lower-deck platforms of its new double-decker subway tunnel but fell short of funds for the project and decided instead to run a single line through San Francisco on the lower deck. BART gave the already constructed upper-deck platforms to MUNI, which jumped at the chance to get its streetcars off the streets and put them underground beneath Market.

By the 1950s, MUNI had pretty much replaced all of its streetcars with buses, but because of certain tunnels some of its lines ran through (the Sunset and Twin Peaks tunnels, built in 1928 and 1918, respectively) and reserved right-of-way paths, it had to keep running PCC streetcars on the J, K, L, M, and N lines. As a result, these lines, running PCC streetcars, continued in operation. The “PCC” in this car’s name comes from a design committee formed in 1929: the Presidents’ Conference Committee, renamed the Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee (ERPCC) in 1931. This group’s membership consisted mostly of representatives of some of the larger operators of urban electric street railways in the United States, plus potential manufacturers. These PCCs can still be found clanking along Market and down the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf on MUNI’s current F-Market line.

The new underground stations featured high platforms, and the older stations were retrofitted with them, which meant the death of the PCCs. Hence, MUNI ordered a fleet of new light rail vehicles from Boeing Vertol, which were promptly delivered in 1980, only two years after the tunnel’s completion. Boeing had absolutely zero experience making LRVs and to this day has not made another. It goes without saying that the company’s first attempt was not a great achievement in efficiency: These cars went only about 600 miles before breaking down, had myriad design flaws that made them almost impossible to maintain, and were prone to jammed doors, defective brakes and motors, and leaky roofs. It took MUNI 22 years to finally retire the last of these cars, replacing them with 151 steel-gray Breda cars, which were 10,000 pounds heavier, cost three times as much, held fewer passengers, and were much noisier to boot. In fact, San Francisco spent $15 million just to try to quiet them down. Such admirable forward thinking and well-spent funds — par for the course for MUNI.

A gusty wind from the approach of an outbound train — one of those noisy, glitchy, overweight Breda two-cars that replaced the slimmer, quieter, less-expensive three-car Boeings in the mid-1990s — musses people’s hair and sends hands over personal belongings as a loud three-tone ding is followed by a computerized female voice chiming, “Approaching, outbound, N two-car train. Followed by K in two minutes. Two-car LL in five minutes.” With a deliberate hitch and a push outward, the train’s four doors open, and a swarm of awaiting passengers shifts to huddle near the newly created openings. I remain where I am, leaning against the Powell Station platform’s wall of smooth, white linoleum hexagons. Red letters scroll by on the Pong-like graphics of the digital board announcing the trains as I stare over the yellow golf-ball-like nodules at the platform’s edge that serve as a warning to be careful of falling onto the tracks.

A man in a grubby pork pie with the suit and jacket to match is also doing some leaning in my proximity and decides to strike up a conversation as the train pulls away.

“Damn these exceedances and those damn whistling roars that follow.”


“Oh, that’s just what they call any higher-speed winds on certain blocks. Jones and California is a notorious one. I swear, I’ve seen people’s dogs get airborne like kites on their leashes. I don’t know if it applies down here, but it’s the same thing, really. These crazy gusts that try to blow you from the platform as the trains approach.”

I’m a little startled at all the gabbing, but manage to eke out, “Um…yeah. It’s a man-made wind, too, I guess.”

“Don’t mind me, son. I’m just another sinner in a Salvation Army suit, burying his fists deep in his coat pockets. Remember, no one else can save you when your face ain’t worth the saving.”

I decide to wander over to a video-game-like display board that shows a real-time map of where all the trains are in the system. It has all these little circles of various colors with the letters K, J, L, M, or N inside them to represent the routes moving along thin gray lines that form the very familiar diagram of the MUNI Metro system. It’s quite fun watching all these various-colored tiny letters in bubbles go from station to station. I see my train, a two-car L, a few stations away, leaving Embarcadero. I gawk at the display until I feel a scintilla of drool on my lip, which I hurriedly wipe away as I go sit with some fellow travelers on the round concrete centerpiece that’s made for sitting.

MUNI is currently in the later stages of building its first new subway tunnel since in late 1970s. It’s been in the works since 2010, and when this Central Subway (slated to open in 2019) is completed, T-Third line trains will travel mostly underground from the 4th Street Caltrain station to Chinatown, bypassing heavy traffic snarls on the always-congested 4th Street and Stockton. Four new stations are being built along the 1.7-mile alignment, including one at Union Square that will have an underground pedestrian tunnel for riders to transfer to and from Powell. I think the walk will be good for people. It’ll remind them what “walking distance” means and how absurd it is to build two major subway stations at such a distance from each other. It would’ve been nice if MUNI had thought to extend this tunnel at least to North Beach (the Chinatown Station will be its northernmost stop), if not farther out to Fisherman’s Wharf, where it could connect to future subway tunnels and transport riders as far as the Golden Gate Bridge, and also underneath 19th Avenue all the way out to the Daly City BART station, and even connect with crosstown routes like the M and N, which could be put completely underground as well…but this line of magical thinking does nothing but get one most expediently to prairies of nowhere. In the meantime, we’ll have to be content to take what little improvements we can get.

My train scoots into the station with a long whistling honk. The doors slide out and then clack apart to let the boarders board and the deboarders off. I do my best defensive lineman imitation, and with a few swim moves, I’m in and able to nab a seat at the front of the first train, affording me an excellent view out the front, where the train’s headlights shine down the tunnel. The grab rails on the train are silver metal bars, and the seats are orange and gray and smooth to the touch, even though various chips and stains and scuffs of scrubbed-out graffiti mar the surface. I slide to a slouch near the aisle and watch the headlights show the way down, the spots of blue and bands of orange lights hurtling by us as the train pounds forward through the cement tube. Thirty miles per hour has never felt as fast as it does down here, though the trains were supposed to top out at 50 mph, but these Bredas were consigned to a lesser speed to avoid problems with their poorly designed braking system. Nonetheless, we arrive at Civic Center Station in no time and soon split off from the BART tunnel, which heads south to the Mission, and pull up to the first MUNI-only underground station at Van Ness, with its shining silver escalators and glossy gray bricks. This is the point where the N-Judah diverts from the rest of the trains, rises up to the surface behind the Safeway at Church and Market, and — with much unnecessary pomp and circumstance — makes its cranky and hitch-riddled way to the Sunset Tunnel.

The Sunset (or Duboce) Tunnel was originally supposed to connect to the now-defunct Eureka Station at the east end of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, making possible a future interconnected subway system that would carry passengers out to the Mission and the Western Addition — but for some inane reason, this plan was scrapped in favor of ending the tunnel on an extension of Duboce Avenue a few blocks north, which didn’t connect to anything. Built in 1918, Eureka Station was eventually abandoned in 1972, when the Castro Station was built for the new Metro underground lines, but pieces of the original tile walls can still be glimpsed when going by on an outbound train coming up to the Castro. Now, the N-Judah, which uses the Sunset Tunnel, is one of the slowest and most-complained-about MUNI lines, the screeching howl of trains rumbling through otherwise quiet neighborhoods when they should have been put underground long ago.

The K, L, and M continue along underground to the beige-brick-covered Church Station, and I quickly scan the north side of the tunnel for a brief peek of the Eureka Station remains as we pull up to the Castro with those candy-apple-red bricks all over its floors and walls.

The doors crank open. The robotic female voice intones, “Castro Station, outbound train, LL.” People exit. People enter. “The doors are now closing,” warns that disembodied voice. The doors close. I lean forward and look back as the train snakes through a few curves in the tracks, watching the orange and blue lights dance as the back car separates from us around the turns. And then we’re off down a long, glorious straightaway. This is where MUNI’s underground lines connect to the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which is still MUNI’s best and closest subway-esque feature, as the K, L, and M lines all shoot through this 2.27-mile tunnel at — for MUNI, at least — blazing speeds.

Mountainous Twin Peaks (whose top is a famous spot for absolutely tremendous views of the City and all-ages necking) was bored through by shifts of some 500 workers who had to carve through 5,000 feet of sand (much of it saturated), 2,300 feet of clay, and 3,500 feet of rock. They dynamited a lot, and three men were fatally injured in one delayed blast. The cavern was lined with steel and concrete; ventilating, drainage, and lighting systems were installed; and two stations were fixed up along the way: Laguna Honda Station, with steps leading 60 feet up to the surface, and Eureka Station, emerging 72 feet overhead.

The folks whose job it was to accomplish this engineering feat were with the Robert C. Storrie Company, which signed a contract on November 2, 1914, to take 1,000 days and $3,372,000 to complete the 25-by-25-by-12,000-foot project — 8,800 feet of it being completely underground. The company finished it with a month to spare. Seventy-five percent of the tunnel’s cost was financed by property owners of the nearly 5,000 acres west of Twin Peaks, and the rest was paid for by those along the route east of Twin Peaks. Promoters jumped at the opportunity to advertise new real estate developments that would be served by routes using the tunnel. On October 10, 1912, a editorial made the customary allusion to downtown traffic congestion and promised that a Twin Peaks Tunnel would “multiply the city by two” and “create a new San Francisco” by opening up 7,000 acres beyond the hills.

When the tunnel first opened, in 1918, it was pretty much a tunnel to nowhere, but houses soon started lining the streets, and new neighborhoods were created, primarily West Portal, Parkside, and a great expansion of the Sunset. But the tunnel did more than merely integrate two districts; it created an enormous residential area that has grown up since 1918 between the ocean and those peaks, whose proper name is Los Pechos de la Chola, or “The Breasts of a Chola (Indian) Maiden.” New roads worth $2,808,000 and new homes worth $3,150,650 were built as new tenants poured in on the first trolleys and merchants arrived to serve them. All of these gals and guys sent new taxes back across the hills to City Hall, and everybody benefited. Assessed valuation west of Twin Peaks rose $4,000,000 during the tunnel’s first six years, and $92,000 more taxes were collected. And all because the tunnel cut 20 minutes off the previous trolley time between Sloat Boulevard and Kearny.

I’m hypnotized by the tracks as the train hymns heavy steel through the headlight’s charge through the dark: a steady howling screech whose aural dents are like the murmuring of distant thunder — the sound of The Underground. An inbound train whizzes by us so close that it slightly wobbles our train for a few seconds. Everything inside rattles. People sit, bored and stoic, staring off at empty space, waiting. The stop-request cord droops like a sagging power line between the heads of people who are sitting (some nodding off for a brief nap) in single seats by the window — their grainy reflections blurred through the blackened windows.

Forest Hill Station emerges at last—the only break in the dark pass—its black, white, and orange brick tessellations of the floors and walls bursting to a vivid display while the train momentarily stops to load and unload, and then shoots off again into the darkness of the tunnel.

Finally, a miracle of daylight shines through at West Portal, as we come to a much-needed rest under the ornamental blue arches of the tunnel’s end. There is a long delay as the train switches from autopilot to street mode, as the operator doesn’t have to do much while the train’s underground, but now that we’re about to hit the streets, he has to take the controls back. The north-side steps start to go down with an elongated high-pitch buzzing, and the robotic voice announces, “Please be careful. The steps are now going down. Do not lean against the door.” The drone of the air conditioning is comforting, and I relax and enjoy the artificial coolness on this sweltering summer day. We are now stopped outside the library on Ulloa, and I say the street name a few times in my head, thinking about how phonetically gorgeous it is: “You-low-Uh.” The passengers are beginning to get agitated by this long wait, and suddenly the operator’s voice mumbles through some static on the intercom: “Sorry for the inconvenience, but this train will now be going out of service. Everybody must disembark here.” Gripes and curses abound as people start to get up and exit the train. I join the disgruntled riders out in the hot sun by the library as the now-empty train pulls off and away. Just more efficiency and wonders from our eternally delayed and mishandled MUNI operations.

I decide to head back into the shade of West Portal Station and end up leaning against the wall between two extremely low-back benches under the station’s blue concrete dome, which has a rectangular skylight sliced into its middle. The whole thing’s like an upside-down half-pipe, and the curved wall is a great place to lean since I can slide my back comfortably into it and prop my feet out a bit. At just the right angle, it’s almost like being in a sideways hammock, and I doze and wonder about the strange mosaic patterns of the maroon bricks. A few trains go by, stickers on the backsides proclaiming, “STOP! DO NOT PASS LRVs!” On one of the benches near me, a guy tries to strike up some time-passing conversation: “It’s a hot one out. Supposed to get up to 75 today. Damn heatwave, for these parts.” I agree, offering, “Yep. It sure is parasol weather out.” He gets up and boards the next train, an M headed down West Portal and 19th Avenue and out to BART’s Balboa Station.

They’ve recently decided that this line should be kept underground until Park Merced, which would entail completely redesigning the West Portal Station so that it has two levels: one for the L, and a lower level for the M and K, which would remain underground, allowing the trains (which now run at an average speed of 9 mph on surface streets) to continue unimpeded by traffic lights at speeds closer to 30 mph underneath West Portal and 19th Avenue. The price tag on this project is estimated at $3 billion, and considering they’ve already delayed making necessary seismic and other safety repairs to the aging Twin Peaks Tunnel, it’s hard to see this incredible subway project ever coming to fruition.

Finally, another L pulls into the station. The swish of the air conditioning is like a godsend as I enter the car and settle into a seat by the window of the trailing car. This time, we fly by the library, the doors quickly whisk open and click back closed at the stop, and after a few sharp turns through some residential streets, we are off down Taraval. A little girl sitting on her mom’s lap a few rows up is singing, “Take me to the zoo, she said, take me to the zoo,” over and over to the tune of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” A mass of wires above guides us by the trolley pole as we zoom past karate studios, hair salons, dry cleaners, cafés, and a ballroom dancing school. All the lights seem to take too long, and we get stuck at 19th Avenue for what seems like an extended smoke break. I keep to my window-gazing as the Parkside Library unfolds beneath a few of McCoppin Square’s eucalyptus trees, and I watch a group of teens on summer break gather to smoke a joint on the patchy grass. The houses around here are mostly duplexes all done up with Spanish-style terra-cotta roofs, and I let my eyes roam around until they fall upon a gorgeous pestle-shaped sign hanging above a liquor store that reads “Gene’s Liquor” in white letters running down its burgundy base. I spot another hand-painted sign over a warehouse reading “Oceanside Sheet Metal” as we bump through to Sunset Boulevard, where there’s a massive intersection with three wide dividers sporting all sorts of woody foliage. Beachier abodes start to infiltrate the Outer Sunset, and the cool gush of the train’s air conditioning combined with the ocean-licked scent let in when the doors open make me feel as if I’m on vacation. I sit back and let myself bask in this fantasy for as long as I can.

The L-Taraval opened in 1919 and was extended along Taraval from 33rd Avenue to 48th in 1923: a stretch that was really the middle of nowhere — nothing but scrub brush and wooden poles to hold the trolley wires on tracks along a dirt road all the way out to the beach. You can still see the remains of these almost-buried tracks from 46th to 48th among some cracked chalky bricks in the middle of the street. (The L now turns on 46th and continues on to the zoo.) MUNI was banking on making these large expanses of real estate accessible, trading some short-term revenue loss for long-term expansion of the tax roles: a rare incidence of forward thinking by our faithful transportation forefathers.

I hop off at 46th, leaving the zoo-bound little girl and her mom alone in the back car. I head out to the beach, where the wind blows heavy and gives you a sand sandwich for your troubles, first taking a pit stop at the grand old public facilities at the end of Taraval, which I highly recommend to anyone in need of some bladder emptying while in the area.

At the beach entrance is an old man wearing a tatterdemalion frock coat in the midst of landing a murder of crows onto a cement block. He’s balancing with one bare foot on the block and using his hands to guide the crows as they hover all around him in midair like idling drones, one by one landing next to him in a row. These beach crows are massive — big as possums and just as brazen. It’s a scavenger’s heaven out here, and the crows exist as fat and happy as they come. I watch this strange display, somewhat apprehensively, for a few minutes, and then walk down to the sand to sit on the ruins of some stone steps below a couple of weed-sprouting dunes. After staring at the choppy ocean’s waves and whitecaps, squinting at the sun, battling the indefatigable wind, and much grinding of sand in my molars, I decide to go into the Riptide Bar at 47th for a beer.

Striding over a few rusted manhole covers, I notice something in the desiccated gutter: a dead pigeon on its back, all stiff from rigor mortis, tiny feet raised upward, feathers slicked down like a swallowtail, beak turned up slightly as if asking for one more scrap of a street doughnut. The bird doesn’t seem to have a mark on it, like it’s some stuffed taxidermy piece roasting in grotesque bier. I don’t want to disturb it, so I forget about it and leave it be to decompose back to the dust and atoms from which all life comes and eventually must return. Besides, I’ve got a beer to drink and a train to catch headed back to where I must return to as well. And thanks to some Promethean thinking by some early 20th-century gentleman, MUNI Metro will aid me most readily in this endeavor.

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