In Defense of the 17th St. ShooFly Tracks

SceneofChildMomBike9-3-16Update July 23, 2018: Being one of the many people who have been flipped off their bikes and thrown into the middle of the intersection of Castro & Market streets by a 30 yard stretch of unusable rail that SFMTA refuses to remove or fill in I am continuing to monitor and call for mitigation for this hazardous condition being maintained to this day. Muni Bosses defend this bit of rail in the following interview claiming they will be using that rail for the work in the Twin Peaks Tunnel or in a potential emergency. As the following photograph shows, the sidewalk has now been expanded to cover one of these controversial rails in concrete. This proves my original point, that these rails are not ever going to be used and they should at least be filled in where they imperil bicycles and impede people with mobility challenges from crossing the street.


Close up of one small section of the rails that cross Castro St. at Market St. connecting Jane Warner Plaza with the Eureka “Ghost Station” portals. This catches bikes, strollers & wheelchairs.

Original article: Perhaps we’ve been a little rough with MUNI asking them to just go and rip their darned tracks right out of the ground. It’s a bit like cornering a tiger.

In the spirit of equal time for both sides let’s hear the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s reasons for keeping the tracks in place. SFMTA has graciously answered written inquiries and their representatives sat down with several concerned citizens in Supervisor Scott Wiener’s Office this past October 6th where they answered even more questions. SFMTA’s side of the story needs to be told.

On October 18, 2016, the SFMTA Rail Division provided answers to 14 individual questions submitted by a 17th Street resident. Please note that the source on this is authoritative. It is a small group of very intense people who run that shop and we greatly appreciate their candor and willingness to share their knowledge and insight with us. These questions were submitted in writing and the answers are as given. Any photographs are added for illustration by me.

  1. I have seen several mentions of a replacement lifespan for the tracks on 17th St. between Church St. and Pond St. (Pond to Castro was replaced in 1996.) What is the lifespan for these tracks and when should they be replaced?

Answer:     Lifespan on tracks vary depending on use and speeds.  Under the current condition and based on a recent trackwork survey, replacement would not likely occur until the rail is at the end of its useful life, potentially another 15+ years.


  1. The tracks from 17th St. between Church and Noe are considered “Non-revenue tracks.” What would it take to upgrade those tracks to revenue service tracks?

Answer:     The designation of non-revenue or revenue is determined by service.  So, a service change would need to occur for this to be considered revenue.  Currently, planned service changes are schedule for MuniForward corridors.  For more info:


  1. The intersection at 17th St. & Church St. has four different connecting tracks allowing numerous turning options for streetcars. Are all of these necessary? Could any be removed or alternatively have their flanges filled -in?

Answer:     All of these tracks are necessary to accommodate the many train movements that might be necessary to accommodate scheduled service and the many civic events where temporary route changes may also be necessary.imagine3


  1. At Church St & 17th St. there is a specific connection between the southbound Church St. track and the westbound 17th St. track. Locals can’t see how that line could be of use to SFMTA and want to know if that specific spur can be removed. That spur is arguably the most problematic of them all in terms of positioning and directly menacing bicyclists. Can this spur be removed?

Answer:     This track is necessary as mentioned in #3. 

The spur track referred to in question 4 complete with illegally parked car forcing bike rider into an extremely dangerous situation.


The spur in question 4.
This is what that corner would look like with the westbound track on 17th St. and both it’s spurs gone.



  1. The condition of the asphalt alongside the tracks at the intersection of 17th & Church St. is degraded and poor. The flanges alongside the tracks from that intersection all the way to Pond Street are deteriorating into large ruts five inches wide in some cases. These catch and topple motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. What does SFMTA plan to do to fix this problem? And when is SFMTA going to fix this problem?

Answer:     SFMTA has reviewed this location and identified several locations where crews went out to repair the asphalt. 

September 29, 2016 – The Deputy Director for the Maintenance of Way team at the Transit Division personally marks out the areas of pavement irregularities to be repaired on 17th St.
  1. Nobody around here knows who is in charge of the Castro Street Terminal for the F-line streetcars and when we have questions regarding things we are seeing happen we don’t know who to ask. Is there any local command structure in place for the F-line trains and drivers? Should we be bothering drivers with questions while they are taking their breaks? Is there a local supervisor we can find and speak to when we have questions about local service?

Answer:     311 is the best resource to voice concerns since it’s logged and categorized.  Varying city departments respond to different concerns (e.g. DPW for cleanliness, SFMTA for signal timing or pedestrian signals), so 311 really is the best way to document your concerns.


  1. Who makes and who supervises the decision to route F-line trains east on 17th street off the Noe Street turnaround and then north on Church Street to reenter service on Market street headed downtown. This decision means that all inbound riders West of Church Street are denied a unit of service each time this occurs. What process governs this service reduction?

Answer:     For scheduled events (like a parade or street closure) the governing body is ISCOTT.   If there is a projected service impact it would be discussed in this forum.  For more immediate changes due to a traffic disruption or other unplanned incidents- field inspectors would confer with Central Control to decide the best way to maintain system wide service.


SFMTA has said that the tracks on 17th Street are necessary to the operations of the F-line streetcars. This is only true if there are no reasonable alternatives. Neighbors on 17th Street have questions about what appear to be good alternatives for F-line routing that meet all of SFMTA’s needs while allowing for the removal of the “temporary” tracks on 17th Street and the problematic connection of those tracks to the J-line tracks at Church Street.

The following questions are related to the topic of rerouting some or all of the load that currently runs between Church St. & Noe St. on tracks that were temporarily installed in 1972 to carry the K-line streetcars to the Twin Peaks Tunnel while Church and Castro Street Muni stations were constructed. We presume that the fleet will be returning to Cameron Beach Yards in 2017.

We note three uses for the tracks in question which need be addressed. First is the need for F-line streetcars to pull into service in the morning. The second is for those same streetcars to pull out of service in the evening. The third use that we note for these tracks is to shortcut the Castro/Upper Market stops which reduces inbound service capacity to riders west of Church street, including disabled riders every single time this option is exercised.

F-line Historic Streetcar bypassing the Castro St. & Upper Market St. stops.


  1. Why can’t F-line streetcars pulling out of service do so through the David Pharr Yard under the Old Mint on Duboce Street at Buchanan? They could cut through the David Pharr Yard and hook a left on Church Street and roll on back to Cameron Beach Yard at night. Why not use this option instead of 17th Street from Noe Street?

Answer:     This would constitute a loss of service for Upper Market since the terminal was not served.  Additionally, it would be adding additional switch maneuvers necessitating additional inspectors.  Lastly, it could introduce additional conflicts to the N,J 22 and to pedestrians & cyclists since this is adjacent to the Duboce bike path.

Map showing alternative pull-in and pull-out service plan ideas for the F-line that don’t use the 17th Street shoofly tracks.


  1. Those were full on revenue tracks for the N-line trains until the Market Street tunnel opened up. Could they be upgraded again to revenue line status so passengers could stay on the F-line trains all the way to Balboa Park? [Please note that passengers today don’t take the F-line to Castro Street during pull out service at the end of the day. Passengers today disembark at the last stop which is downtown and then the train goes “home.” Why can’t this pattern continue with the streetcars going home to Cameron Beach Yards instead of MME?]

Answer:     Technically, the entire route must be served.  Occasionally, there might be “extra service” where a train might not start or end from the terminus of their route; but this should be considered additional service.  Anything less than a full route served during scheduled hours of service is potentially a loss of service for our customers.


  1. F-line cars pulling into service from Cameron Beach Yards could easily just stay on Church Street all the way to Market Street where they can (and often do) take a right hand turn and enter service at the first available inbound stop on Market Street (Guerrero Street). So why don’t the F-line cars just make that change permanent and early in the morning when pulling into service from Cameron Beach Yard roll right by 17th Street and just turn right onto Market Street headed inbound? [Please note the F-line does not commence service at Castro Street right now so this is not a proposed decrease in service to the Castro/Upper Market area but a safety change that maintains current service levels.]

Answer:   Similar response for #9.  The first run begins at the beginning of the line.  Additional partial runs might occur, but these are not considered a full service run. 

Facing North on Church Street at Market Street. The right turn connector is often used by F-line streetcars to enter service or to skip the Castro stops during the day.


  1. Several people including Mr. Reiskin have remarked that if there were an additional connection or two at Market Street and Church Street intersections then other options would be available to route the F-line trains off 17th Street. One such option would be a connection from the northbound Church Street J-Church tracks to the westbound Market Street tracks. This would let F-line trains pulling into service from Cameron Beach Yard turn left at that intersection and go to Castro Station via the Noe Street turnaround. How much would an engineering study of that option cost and has such been investigated?

Answer:   For comparison, just the trackwork at Church and Duboce was over $3.2 million.  Any addition to Capital Program would need to remove an existing project.  Additionally, the addition of more trackwork along Market Street could potentially cause more conflicts with other users (motorists, cyclists, pedestrians). Additional overhead wires and overhead poles would be required.  Market Street construction is extremely disruptive to all modes of transportation.


  1. The sister option to the above is a connection track between the eastbound Market Street tracks headed downtown and the southbound J-Church line tracks on Church Street. This would allow for trains pulling out of service to leave Castro Street Station at night and turn right at Market and Church to roll on home. They could even carry passengers back to Balboa Park at night.

Answer:   Similar to #11. Including the reconstruction of the nearside boarding island along Market Street.  This would also create a new situation similar to the one that you raised in #4 for cyclists.  Market Street carries greater numbers of all transportation users, so any disruption would have greater impacts.

Market Street heading to the Ferry Building where it crosses Church Street. Streetcars can not turn right from Market Street onto Church Street or left onto Market Street from Church Street.


  1. This question deals with the intersection of Church Street and 17th Street where the numerous switches and cross connections makes for a loud vibrating crossing every time a J-Church Muni LRV passes over them. The vibrations emanate for at least half a block to the west and are very disturbing to those who have to hear them every evening until late into the night. Noe Street has a vibration damping platform which greatly reduces this problem. What would it take for SFMTA to rebuild that intersection with vibration dampers and tight joins so that the LRV’s don’t rattle like an old jalopy on each and every crossing?

Answer:  This would need to be prioritized with other current maintenance needs system wide. It currently is not included and would likely not occur until the rail replacement is at the end of its useful life.

Close up of the Noe Street vibration damping platform. The whole track bed is floating on rubber.


  1. My last question deals with disability access in a general way. Where streetcar tracks intersect crosswalks and plaza area’s and can thus be an impediment to those using mobility assistance devices what methods does SFMTA use to mitigate this problem? Could these be employed on 17th Street and at Jane Warner Plaza?

Answer:   SFMTA consults with MAAC  and Accessible Services in the review of our projects to ensure conformance to local and state accessible guidelines and for recommendations for accessible improvements.   Accessible design concerns were considered for the current Jane Warner Plaza design.

First person interview conducted in the Office of Supervisor Scott Wiener on October 6, 2016.

On October 6, 2016 in Supervisor Scott Wiener’s Office a local mom who rides her child to a nearby school asked: “Now how about ripping out the track just on the curb section on Church and 17th Street?”

Oliver Gajda from the Transit Division answered the question directly and shared a wealth of knowledge with us in so doing.  (Oliver Gajda is the man who invented the sharrow markings that we see on bike paths everywhere in San Francisco. He did this while working closely with Mike Sallaberry back in 2005. I add this note to recognize the years of study that both of these men have invested in this field.)

[Quotes are close but not exact as I was working from notes and memory:]

Answer:  “All the track that we have is necessary for our movements either from immediate service planning or for emergency situations or for if there’s events that happen. So all the movements are necessary, if anything, I think in San Francisco we’re looking at opportunities to have more tracks and more switches to give us more flexibility and opportunities so that when we do have a situation like we’re having right now on the ground trains can get around that situation when it does occur.”

“We looked at the collision pattern and that piece of track that I think a lot of people are focused on, (so far our data, which is just looking at the police crash data), which is the right off of Church Street onto 17th hasn’t been a primary factor in the information that we’re looking at right now.”

“And that track movement right there that people are focusing on, that movement is necessary because if you lose Church or Castro Station for an emergency situation that is the way the trains would come back around and go back through the Eureka Portal. That is why all that track is still retained through there and that’s why there’s a gate at 17th and Castro to allow that movement. Now has it happened in the last decade? No. But when we need it, we’re going to really need it.”

“The other issue you raised, which is filling in the flange and the way the track is. We call that the shoofly track, which is actually a technical term for a rail which is a diversion track to get around obstacles and that flange actually needs to be cleared.” This will probably occur with the Twin Peaks Replacement Track project and the contractor will likely clear those flange ways and bring equipment through that portal.

Market Street and Church Street during the 1941 flood


Andres Power (Aide to Supervisor Scott Wiener) asked about flange filling material.

First Oliver Gajda explained some of the technical problems specific to the way trains operate and the need for the flange and the problem with flange filling materials when the train isn’t heavy enough to compress the filler. There was a whole complicated calculus that he outlined very rapidly and concisely.

Mike Sallaberry then continued the explanation. Mike researches this question continuously and has followed this issue for many years. It is a question many have raised in many communities and the Bike Coalition also follows this closely. What they have found is that the only product available is for heavy rail, straight sections of tracks for trains going five miles per hour.


How is the right of way defined by SFMTA for the streetcars on 17th Street?

This question raised a call for clarification at first because of the related terms and concepts it invokes. Let me elucidate. There’s the “operating envelope” or “kinematic envelope” which is a three-dimensional path of travel that incorporates the streetcar’s leaning and other offsetting positions as it travels on the tracks. This is related to the overall profile of the train as it moves and is invoked to keep signs and other obstacles out of the path of travel. This is very technical stuff so here is a link to a good article for those interested in detail

For general right of way maintenance which city departments are responsible for the street and the tracks and where is the line drawn between these areas?

[Please note that quotes are very close but not exact as they were taken from notes.]

“In general terms, there is the gauge side of the rail and the field side of the rail. In general, when you’re dealing with the street the area from the curb face to the rail is oftentimes dealt with by the Department of Public Works as far as the maintenance of that and the pavement as far as the paint is dealt with more on the Sustainable Streets side of the ‘House of MTA’ and then within the MUNI side is actually between the two rails themselves which is the gauge side.”

When we came out to 17th Street (On September 29, 2016) … “We were actually looking at the whole thing in its entirety because we’re one agency. We had Sustainable Streets out there and Transit out there and we identified several locations throughout that length of 17th Street where we perceived there was pavement irregularities that would be addressed with the Maintenance of Way team.”

Boots on the ground: Sustainable Streets and Transit Division inspecting 17th Street on September 29, 2016.



As you can see the past four months have been busy and much good info and discussion has occurred. We are posting all of this here as an attempt to share this info so that others may refer to it as they see fit. The situation we are working to resolve is real and the solution is not obvious. That’s why it’s called a problem.

One last detail. Our research indicates that these shoofly tracks were installed in 1972 for a purpose that was realized from December 3, 1972 when the first KLM streetcars began using them in service until December 17, 1980 when those lines entered service using the brand new MUNI system and new MUNI Light Rail Vehicles. They are T-rail and not as heavy as the rail on nearby Church Street.

We deeply appreciate the ideas and constructive input from the many smart wonderful people who live here, ride these streets and work for The City. (And just for the record you can read the original letter from SFMTA on this topic here.)

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