Will Muni Ever Consider Catenary-Free Light Rail?

It’s hard not to get excited about the new urban rail technology announced this week by Bombardier. Could we ever see something like this in San Francisco? Similar technology has been on Muni’s radar but the future of light rail in the city doesn’t seem to be too high on the MTA’s priority list, at least, not right now.

BT_4086_PRIMOVE_Energy_flow.jpgGraphics by Bombardier.

According to Bombardier:

The new and unique BOMBARDIER* PRIMOVE* system allows catenary-free operation of FLEXITY* trams over distances of varying lengths and in all surroundings as well as on underground lines – just like any conventional system with overhead lines. What makes it outstanding is that the power transfer is contactless; the electric supply components are invisible and hidden under the vehicle and beneath the track.


Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City who sits on the BART board of directors, said he suggested catenary-free light rail to Muni when he read about Alstom’s catenary-free streetcars in Bordeaux.

The city wanted a streetcar to run through the historic center, but
didn’t want the visual impact of the wires. I thought it could overcome
some of the objections about extending streetcars along the waterfront,
especially Marina Green — imagine streetcars gliding along a
re-fashioned Marina Boulevard on their way from the Presidio to China
Basin with no wires!

Radulovich points out fixing Muni’s light rail system — a fleet of 151 vehicles that carries 127,000 riders a day — is not considered in
the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP).

The way that Muni builds and operates our streetcars generally is quite
backwards; we are one of the last in the world to use high-floor cars
on the street. The Breda cars that Muni and MTA bought may be the
heaviest in the world, which means more noise, vibration, energy
consumption, and track damage.

Judson True, the MTA’s media relations director, said the agency can’t just decide it wants to replace vehicles. He said the “effective life” for many of the current vehicles ends in 2020.

“We will replace our light rail vehicles as established by FTA and MTC guidelines and when we do we’ll definitely look at acquiring vehicles with the best available technology.”

SPUR says regional rail is suffering a midlife crisis. When will Muni come up with a plan to address its light rail crisis?

  • Wow… light rail porn!

    Those of us dreamers who imagine new rail lines being laid down in this city can only hope that thought is given to using new and better technology like this (if it proves worthwhile). New lines that don’t run in the Market Street Tunnel (the central subway, por ejemplo) need not use cars that have to conform to its high platforms.

  • Hold on… I think it would be a visual impact to take the cantenary wires down! Market street has had overhead wires since the 1906 EQ era and probably earlier. My first experience of SF was ascending to the bustle of the street cars at the Powell St. station. The overhead lines were part of that visual bustle and are certainly an integral part of the streetscape of so many great SF streets. Overhead wires add to a sense of place and wayfinding (“Hmm, I must be near a transit line”).

  • Additionally, how much would this underground system cost? With digging trenches through the neighborhoods and all, I find it hard to imagine it cheaper than overhead. We can use all the money we can get a hold of to install Transit Signal Priority systems on more corridors.

  • Adrian

    The PRIMOVE induction system Bombardier just announced is a contactless — unlike the Alstom-owned technology used in Bordeaux.

    Here are all the details on it (including a PDF brochure “data sheet” and a video):


    … which is just short for the full URL:


  • Josh, no tienes razon, amigo. Central Subway is to be connected to the 3d Street LR which has high floor platforms. traverse generally northward through a potential “value engineered” SoMa subway on 4th with stub platforms.

    If 2/3 of the line are high floor, and 1/3 of the line is built on the cheap so that there is no possibility of constructing stations with platforms long enough to support both high and low floor vehicles, i.e. an ADA conformant sloping ramp connecting raised and low platforms.

    As far as porn goes, the only thing real about porn is that which goes on within the observer.

    And right now, the Central Subway is really bad porn. Yeah, it’ll probably get you off but you’re going to feel really bad about it afterward. If they’re going to spend $1.x billion on a dumbed down system, then it makes sense to find another few hundred million to make the system extensible and better integrated into the Market Street network.

    And subways are better, more efficient and more attractive than surface light rail. Nobody cares about wires or electric 3d rails in a tunnel (flash to The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, “what is the penalty for murder in the State of New York? Electrocution.”) San Francisco’s grid and congestion beg for underground direct lines. Van Ness to 16th Street and Geary to Market are two viable targets for subways.

    The City should invest in TBM technology and develop expertise within the DPW to tunnel subways and a long term plan to make it happen.


  • anonymouse

    “And subways are better, more efficient and more attractive than surface light rail.”
    That really, really, really depends on context. Subways have their costs as well as benefits, and one of the costs is the fact that it’s no longer on the surface. Now you have to worry about vertical circulation, and you’ve just added travel time to everyone’s journey to get down into the stations and back up. My case in point: the Central Subway. It is going to take a while for passengers to get down the long escalator all the way down from the mezzanine at Powell to the very deep Central Subway platforms, and I think there might be some walking too, since the station will be closer to Union Square. And one stop later, most of those same passengers will be getting back up to the surface. With the 30-Stockton, you just step off the bus and you’re pretty much at your destination.

    As for the inductive power thing, I guess it could work in SF, they’d just have to rip out and replace all their tracks, and scrap all their LRVs and replace them with Bombardier ones. And then they’d only be able to buy Bombardier trains from then on.

  • Yeah, Marcos, I’m all too familiar with the deficiencies in the CS. My point was just that there’s a mindset in Muni and SF as a whole that light rail = Market St tunnel, so new LR infrastructure is assumed to have to conform to its limitations.

    The F-line is often forgotten – written off as a tourist attraction – but it shows that the city can operate rail lines with two incompatible technologies on different lines without completely freaking out. Imagine a reborn H-line (Van Ness-Potrero) with subway and surface sections. Or a Geary streetcar that goes underground downtown. These systems would be better off low-floor, even though the cars that run on them couldn’t be used on the current JKLMN lines.

    And, IMHO, the T-CS would be better if it was built this way. But what are you gonna do? 🙂

    Back to the article above, Mr. Radulovich has an excellent point that the F-line extension to the Marina would definitely benefit from this cordless technology.

  • It does make sense to keep systems interoperable just to maximize deployment of resources.

    F line cars are historic cars. Is it technically practical that the PCCs be retrofitted with cordless tech and still be historic per fed law?

    The first transit sales tax, Prop B, called for a four corridors plan for rail. 3d street has been completed, with the SoMa and Central subways the next phases of that projects into North Beach, a second corridor will be completed.

    Van Ness and Geary were the other two.

    We need more subways. It is relatively expensive to construct and incrementally more expensive to operate, but over time subways pay productivity dividends that dwarf infrastructure investment.


  • bikerider

    Catenary-free light rail and Central stubway are both expensive solutions in search of a problem.

    Subways in San Francisco represent the final hegemony of the car on the street level.

  • bikerider

    What problem do you believe a Central Subway addresses? Which could not be solved much more quickly (and with much less expense and disruption) through surface transport?

    And with all due respect to San Francisco…it is no New York or London. Subway is just a tool like any other. If SF ever expects to top 2 million inhabitants (give or take), then perhaps one can start talking subways making economic sense.

  • The Central Subway happens to be an exceptionally poorly planned subway tunnel, and rail planning in the Bay Area can be quite backward. Your argument is very valid as against specific projects, but it does not constitute a valid or complete argument against all subways, as a general matter. As you said, SF is certainly no London or New York, so it does not require anything near that level of tunneling. But that does not mean that a couple well-planned and carefully-selected tunneled alignments would not be beneficial.

    Tunneling under a certain street does not imply the demise of surface-level transit on that street — far from it (see: Market Street in SF, tons of streets in Manhattan, etc, etc.), so the idea that building underground transit empowers automobiles is rather nonsensical. And there is no shortage of tools at our disposal to ensure that automobile traffic is balanced carefully against other street uses.

  • bikerider

    While you give a well-reasoned and nuanced guide for appropriate use of tunneling, that is not the methodology used by American planners, who mainly use tunneling to preserve existing automobile capacity above ground. In fact, our EIR rules generally require this type of extraordinary measure.

    Market St is a good example of this. Following 1960s design principles, trams were put underground to preserve existing LOS for autos. While this did not preclude various surface transit options on Market, the tunneling was a huge cost (financially and in terms of lost opportunity). Compare to modern tram projects in Europe, where new lines accompanied new pedestrianized and car-free zones.

  • Edwardo Carpontea

    I believe PTVs (personal trolley vehicles) which will need a catenary system, are the real answer to our transportation mess. So to me overhead wires a a thing of beauty.

  • yelena Zhavoronkova


    i am wondering if anyone can help me with the following: does anyone knows what’s going on on the ground next to the tram rails on the market street, in the area between duboce and castro? it looks like the rust powder from the breaks of the trams, or is this the pollen from the palm trees?



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The thousands of daily travelers converging at the crowded Church and Duboce transit and bicycle junction can look forward to a host of streetscape improvements to make it safer and more inviting in the next couple of years. The Duboce Muni portal, converted from a street-level railway decades ago, has remained one of the city’s hairiest junctures […]