Key System

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Key System
Key System logo.jpg
Locale East Bay
Transit type Interurban Streetcar
Began operation1903
Ended operation(streetcar service) 1948 (commuter train service) 1958 (bus service) 1960
CharacterMixed grade separated and at-grade street running
System length66 mi (106 km)
Track gauge 4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge [1]
Electrification 600 V DC overhead

The Key System (or Key Route) was a privately owned company that provided mass transit in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, [2] Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, Richmond, Albany, and El Cerrito in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area from 1903 until 1960, when it was sold to a newly formed public agency, AC Transit. The Key System consisted of local streetcar and bus lines in the East Bay, and commuter rail and bus lines connecting the East Bay to San Francisco by a ferry pier on San Francisco Bay, later via the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over 66 miles (106 km) of track. The local streetcars were discontinued in 1948 and the commuter trains to San Francisco were discontinued in 1958. The Key System's territory is today served by BART and AC Transit bus service.



Early years

A San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Railway carriage 1909 San Franscisco, Oakland & San Jose Railway (cropped).jpg
A San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Railway carriage
Key Pier, 1909 Key Pier (cropped).jpg
Key Pier, 1909
The new ferry terminal on the Key System Mole in 1933. The old ferry terminal and the end of the mole had been destroyed by a fire and explosion earlier in the year. Architect and engineer (1933) (14781438192).jpg
The new ferry terminal on the Key System Mole in 1933. The old ferry terminal and the end of the mole had been destroyed by a fire and explosion earlier in the year.

The system was a consolidation of several streetcar lines assembled in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith. After having made a fortune in Borax and gained his nickname, "Borax", the entrepreneur turned to real estate and electric traction for streetcars. The Key System was founded as the San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway (SFOSJR), incorporated in 1902. Service began on October 26, 1903, with a four-car train carrying 250 passengers, departing downtown Berkeley for the ferry pier, with service to San Francisco. Before the end of 1903, the general manager of the SFOSJR devised the idea of using a stylized map on which the system's routes resembled an old-fashioned key, with three "handle loops" that covered the cities of Berkeley, Piedmont (initially, "Claremont" shared the Piedmont loop) and Oakland, and a "shaft" in the form of the Key pier, the "teeth" representing the ferry berths at the end of the pier. The company touted its 'key route', which led to the adoption of the name "Key System". [3]

In 1908, the SFOSJR changed its name to the San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Consolidated Railway; it changed to the San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railway in 1912. After it went bankrupt in December 1923, it was re-organized as the Key System Transit Co., adopting a marketing concept as the name of the company.

A Key System train in Emeryville, 1909, heading west to the Mole, entering the underpass ("subway") under the mainline of the Southern Pacific under construction. 1909 Key System, oakland (cropped).jpg
A Key System train in Emeryville, 1909, heading west to the Mole, entering the underpass ("subway") under the mainline of the Southern Pacific under construction.

Following the Great Crash of 1929, a holding company called the Railway Equipment & Realty Co. was created, with the subsidiary Key System Ltd running the commuter trains. In 1938, the name became the Key System.

During World War II, the Key System built and operated the Shipyard Railway between a transfer station in Emeryville and the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond.

National City Lines era

National City Lines acquired 64% of the stock in the system in 1946. [4]

The same year E. Jay Quinby hand published a document exposing the ownership of National City Lines (General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Phillips Petroleum). He addressed the publication to The Mayors; The City Manager; The City Transit Engineer; The members of The Committee on Mass-Transportation and The Tax-Payers and The Riding Citizens of Your Community. In it he wrote "This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you that there is a careful, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your Electric Railway System". [5]

The new owners made a number of rapid changes. In 1946 they cut back the A-1 train route and then the express trains in 1947. The company increased fares in 1946 and then in both January and November 1947. During the period there were many complaints of overcrowding. [6]

On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals (constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants) were indicted in the Federal District Court of Southern California on two counts: 'conspiring to acquire control of a number of transit companies, forming a transportation monopoly' and 'Conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines'. [7] They were convicted of conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies. They were acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of these companies.

In 1948 National City Lines proposed a plan to convert all the streetcars to buses. [8] They placed an advertisement in the local papers explaining their plan to 'modernize' and 'motorize' Line 14. [9] The Oakland City Council opposed the plan by 5–3. [4] The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) supported the plan which included large fare increases. [8] In October 1948, 700 people signed a petition with the PUC "against the Key System, seeking restoration of the bus service on the #70 Chabot Bus line". [6] The city councils of Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro opposed the removal of street cars. The traffic planners supported removal of the streetcar lines to facilitate movement of automobiles. [4] Local governments in the East Bay attempted to purchase the Key System, but were unsuccessful.

Streetcars were converted to buses during November/December 1948. [8]

In 1949 National City Lines, General Motors and others were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to their subsidiary transit companies throughout the U.S. [10]

Between 1946 and 1954 transbay fares increased from 20¢ to 50¢ ($3 to $5 adjusted for inflation). Fares in this period were used to operate and for 'motorisation' which included streetcar track removal, repaving, purchase of new buses and the construction of bus maintenance facilities. Transbay ridership fell from 22.2 million in 1946 to 9.8 million in 1952. [6]

The Key System's famed commuter train system was dismantled in 1958 after many years of declining ridership as well by the corrupt monopolistic efforts of National City Lines. The last run was on April 20, 1958. [11] In 1960, the newly formed publicly owned AC Transit took over the Key System's facilities.

Most of the rolling stock was scrapped, with some sold to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Several streetcars, interurbans and bridge units were salvaged for collections in the United States. Of the large bridge units, three are at the Western Railway Museum near Rio Vista, California [12] while another is at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in southern California.

System details

1926 map of the lines prior to the construction of the Bay Bridge 1926 Key System map.jpg
1926 map of the lines prior to the construction of the Bay Bridge

The initial connection across the Bay to San Francisco was by ferryboat via a causeway and pier ("mole"), extending from the end of Yerba Buena Avenue in Oakland, California, westward 16,000 feet (4,900 m) to a ferry terminal near Yerba Buena Island. Filling for the causeway had been started by a short-lived narrow-gauge railroad company in the late 19th century, the California and Nevada Railroad. "Borax" Smith acquired the causeway from the California and Nevada upon its bankruptcy.

On May 6, 1933, a major fire erupted on the pier end of the mole, consuming the ferry terminal building as well as gutting the ferryboat Peralta. The pier was subsequently reconstructed and a new terminal building erected.

The Key System operated a fleet of ferries between the Key Route Pier [13] and the San Francisco Ferry Building until January 15, 1939 when a new dual track opened on the south side of the lower deck of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, bringing Key System trains to the then-new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco's downtown. The bridge railway and Transbay Terminal were shared with the Southern Pacific's Interurban Electric and the Western Pacific's Sacramento Northern railroads.

The Key System's first trains were composed of standard wooden railroad passenger cars, complete with clerestory roofs. Atop each of these, a pair of pantographs, invented and manufactured by the Key System's own shops, were installed to collect current from overhead wires to power a pair of electric motors on each car, one on each truck (bogie). [14]

The design of rolling stock changed over the years. Wood gave way to steel, and, instead of doors at each end, center doors were adopted.

The later rolling stock consisted of specially designed "bridge units" for use on the new bridge, articulated cars sharing a common central truck and including central passenger entries in each car, a forerunner of the design of most light rail vehicles today. Several of these pairs were connected to make up a train. Power pickup was via pantograph from overhead catenary wires, except on the Bay Bridge where a third rail pickup was used. The Key's trains ran on 600 volt direct current, compared to the 1200 volts used by the SP commuter trains. The cars had an enclosed operator's cab in the right front, with passenger seats extending to the very front of the vehicle, a favorite seat for many children, with dramatic views of the tracks ahead.

The exterior color of the cars was orange and silver. Interior upholstery was woven reed seat covers in one of the articulated sections, and leather in the other, the smoking section. The flooring was linoleum. During WWII, the roofs were painted gray for aerial camouflage. [15] After acquisition by National City Lines, all Key vehicles including the bridge units were re-painted in that company's standard colors, yellow and green.

Transbay rail lines

1941 Key System map with a detail of the Transbay Terminal 1941 Key System map.jpg
1941 Key System map with a detail of the Transbay Terminal

Until the Bay Bridge railway began operation, Key commuter trains had no letter designation. They were named for the principal street or district they served.

The A, B, C, E and F lines were the last Key System rail lines. Train service ended on April 20, 1958, replaced by buses using the same letter designations. AC Transit preserved the letter-designated routes when it took over the Key System two years later, and are still in use; AC Transit's B, C, E, F, G and H lines follow roughly the corresponding Key routes and neighborhoods.

East Bay Street railways

1911 map showing the various streetcar and commuter train lines that would later become the Key System 1911 Key System map.jpg
1911 map showing the various streetcar and commuter train lines that would later become the Key System

The Key System's streetcars operated as a separate division under the name "Oakland Traction Company", later changed to "East Bay Street Railways. Ltd", and finally to "East Bay Transit Co.", reflecting the increasing use of buses. The numbering of the streetcar lines changed several times over the years. The Key System's streetcars operated out of several carbarns. The Central Carhouse was on the east side of Lake Merritt on Third Avenue. The Western Carhouse was located at 51st and Telegraph Avenue in the Temescal District of Oakland. The Elmhurst Carhouse was in the east Oakland district of Elmhurst, on East 14th (International Blvd.) between 94th and 96th Avenues. The Northern Carhouse was in Richmond where today's AC Transit has a bus yard. In the early years of operation, these were supplemented by a number of smaller carbarns scattered throughout the East Bay area, many of them inherited from the pre-Key companies acquired by "Borax" Smith. The Key streetcars were originally painted dark green and cream white, then orange. They were re-painted in the green and yellow scheme of National City Lines after NCL acquired the Key System. [16]

The Key System had ordered 40 trolley coaches from ACF-Brill in 1945 to convert the East Bay trolley lines. The new NCL management canceled the Key's trackless program in 1946 before wire changes were made, and diverted the order (some units of which had already been painted for the Key and delivered to Oakland) to its own Los Angeles Transit Lines, where they ran until 1963. [17] The last Key streetcars ran on November 28, 1948, replaced by buses. [18]

Other properties

From the beginning, the Key System had been conceived as a dual real estate and transportation system. "Borax" Smith and his partner Frank C. Havens first established a company called the "Realty Syndicate" which acquired large tracts of undeveloped land throughout the East Bay. The Realty Syndicate also built two large hotels, each served by a San Francisco-bound train, the Claremont and the Key Route Inn, and a popular amusement park in Oakland called Idora Park. Streetcar lines were also routed to serve all these properties, thereby enhancing their value. In its early years, the Key System was actually a subsidiary of the Realty Syndicate. Berkeley's numerous paths, lanes, walks and steps, were put in place in many of the newly developed neighborhoods, often in the middle of a city block, so that commuters could walk more directly to the new train system. Berkeley's pathways are still maintained by local groups.


Key System car #187 preserved at Western Railway Museum. Key System 187.jpg
Key System car #187 preserved at Western Railway Museum.
The former Key System train station on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland Piedmont Avenue former train station.jpg
The former Key System train station on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland

Signs of the system still remain:

See also

Related Research Articles

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AC Transit Public transit operator in Alameda County and Contra Costa County, California

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The Shipyard Railway was an electric railroad line, rapidly constructed during World War II to transport workers to and from the Kaiser Shipyards located in the city of Richmond, California.

East Bay Electric Lines

The East Bay Electric Lines were a unit of the Southern Pacific Railroad that operated electric interurban-type trains in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Beginning in 1862, the SP and its predecessors operated local steam-drawn ferry-train passenger service in the East Bay on an expanding system of lines, but in 1902 the Key System started a competing system of electric lines and ferries. The SP then drew up plans to expand and electrify its system of lines and this new service began in 1911. The trains served the cities of Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro transporting commuters to and from the large Oakland Pier and SP Alameda Pier. A fleet of ferry boats ran between these piers and the docks of the Ferry Building on the San Francisco Embarcadero.

Sacramento Northern Railway Rail line

The Sacramento Northern Railway was a 183-mile (295 km) electric interurban railway that connected Chico in northern California with Oakland via the California capital, Sacramento. In its operation it ran directly on the streets of Oakland, Sacramento, Yuba City, Chico, and Woodland and ran interurban passenger service until 1941 and freight service into the 1960s.

Oakland Long Wharf

The Oakland Long Wharf was an 11,000-foot railroad wharf and ferry pier along the east shore of San Francisco Bay located at the foot of Seventh Street in West Oakland. The Oakland Long Wharf was built, beginning 1868, by the Central Pacific Railroad on what was previously Oakland Point. Beginning November 8, 1869, it served as the west coast terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In the 1880s, Southern Pacific Railroad took over the CPRR, extending it and creating a new ferry terminal building with the official station name Oakland Pier. The entire structure became commonly and popularly called the Oakland Mole.

Peninsular Railway (California) Former interurban electrified railway in California

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16th Street station (Oakland)

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The Berkeley Branch Railroad was a 3.84-mile (6.18 km) long branch line of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) from a junction in what later became Emeryville called "Shellmound" to what soon became downtown Berkeley, adjacent to the new University of California campus. The line opened on August 16, 1876. The initial terminal point was at Shattuck and University Avenues in Berkeley. In 1878, the line was extended north along Shattuck to Vine with the original terminus then becoming Berkeley Station. The line connected at Shellmound with trains headed to the Oakland Pier and ferries to San Francisco. Beginning on January 22, 1882, Berkeley Branch trains proceeded directly to the pier.

Ferries of San Francisco Bay

San Francisco Bay in California has been served by ferries of all types for over 150 years. John Reed established a sailboat ferry service in 1826. Although the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge led to the decline in the importance of most ferries, some are still in use today for both commuters and tourists.

Key Route Inn

The Key Route Inn was a major hotel in Oakland, California in the early decades of the 20th century. It was constructed by the Realty Syndicate of Francis "Borax" Smith and Frank C. Havens, a subsidiary of which was the Key Route transit system. The Inn opened on May 7, 1907, straddling what is now Grand Avenue along the west side of Broadway. President William Howard Taft and his party were guests in 1909. The building was a massive wood-framed structure with open timbering, in imitation of an old English style. One of its most remarkable features was a large archway and corridor through which the tracks of one of the Key Route's transbay lines passed. A Key Route stop in this corridor connected to the hotel's main lobby.

The San Francisco and Oakland Railroad (SF&O) was built in 1862 to provide ferry-train service from a San Francisco ferry terminal connecting with railroad service through Oakland to San Antonio. In 1868 Central Pacific Railroad decided that Oakland would be the west coast terminus of the First transcontinental railroad and bought SF&O. Beginning November 8, 1869, part of the SF&O line served as the westernmost portion of the transcontinental railroad. It subsequently was absorbed into the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP). The track in Oakland was electrified in 1911 and extended across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1939. Service was abandoned in 1941.

Northbrae Tunnel

The Northbrae Tunnel, also referred to as the Solano Avenue Tunnel, was built as a commuter electric railroad tunnel in the northern part of Berkeley, California, and was later converted to street use.


  1. "San Francisco LRV Specifications" (PDF). Ansaldobreda. Archived from the original (pdf) on September 23, 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2013.
  2. Old Alameda's transit system was less confusing Archived 2009-06-12 at the Wayback Machine
  3. The Key Route, Harre Demoro, v.1, p.12, Interurban Press (1985)
  4. 1 2 3 "Traffic Engineers vs. Transit Patrons". Archived from the original on 2012-02-04.
  5. "Paving the Way for Buses – The Great GM Streetcar Conspiracy Part II – The Plot Clots". Bay Crossings. May 2003. E. Jay Quinby, a mercurial rail fan, former electric traction employee, retired Lieutenant Commander in the Navy (World War II), and home builder of a battery-powered electric Volkswagen. His contribution to this story was to hand publish and expose the owners of National City Lines (GM, Firestone, and Phillips Petroleum) and he addressed it to "The Mayors; The City Manager; The City Transit Engineer; The members of The Committee on Mass-Transportation and The Tax-Payers and The Riding Citizens of Your Community." In 1946, he sent his 36-page analysis, which began: "This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you that there is a careful, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your Electric Railway System."
  6. 1 2 3 "The Desired Result: Drive People to Drive". Archived from the original on 2012-02-04.
  7. "United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit". 1951. Archived from the original on 2008-06-08. On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals, constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants, were indicted on two counts, the second of which charged them with conspiring to monopolize certain portions of interstate commerce, in violation of Section 2 of the Anti-trust Act, 15 U.S.C.A. § 2.
  8. 1 2 3 "The Fight to Save the Streetcars and Electric Trains". Archived from the original on 2012-02-04.
  9. "Newspaper ad (reduced from actual size) from Oakland Tribune, 1/23/48:". Archived from the original on 2012-03-14.
  10. See appeals court ruling: Archived 2008-06-08 at the Wayback Machine
  11. "East Shore & Suburban Railway & other El Cerrito Railroad Chronology" (PDF). El Cerrito Historical Society. Retrieved 18 October 2020.
  12. WRM equipment roster.
  13. Exhibit Name: Trains of Oakland Archived 2006-08-27 at the Wayback Machine , Oakland Museum of California
  14. The Key Route, Harre Demoro, v.1, pp.16-17, publ. Interurban Press (1985)
  15. The Key Route, Harre Demoro, v.1, p.105, publ. Interurban Press (1985)
  16. Key System Streetcars, by Vernon Sappers, Signature Press, 2007.
  17. The Yellow Cars of Los Angeles, by Jim Walker. Interurbans Press, 1977.
  18. Key System Streetcars, by Vernon J. Sappers (2007), pp.123-25]
  19. San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Lower Deck Eastbound Drive (visible at 4:15 to 4:35)
  20. State of California, Dept. of Public Works, Tunnel Section and Details, Yerba Buena Crossing, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, June 1934, Sup. Drawing No. 19A, PDF p.28
  21. "'Great Fill and Wall for Bay Bridge Approach", California Highways and Public Works, Dec. 1933, p.13
  22. "Emeryville Comes of Age – 1930s to 1960s", City of Emeryville
  23. "Key system served Albany commuters", East Bay Times, August 7, 2008
  24. ""Claremont Hotel", Registration Form, National Register of Historic Places" (PDF). Berkeley/Oakland Neighbors of the Claremont. 2003. pp. 40–41.
  25. The Key Route, Harre W. Demoro, Interurban Press, 1985, p.33 & p.217
  26. "Oakland" by Annalee Allen, Edmund Clausen. p. 32
  27. Downtown Historic Oakland – National Historic Register #98000813
  28. "Oakland California Landmarks" . Retrieved 2010-04-02. See also National Register of Historic Places listings in Alameda County, California.
  29. "Developer Hopes To Restore Key System Building, Build 18-Story Office Tower", hoodline, July 11, 2017
  30. The Key at 12th
  31. "Oakland wiki: Key Route Plaza mural". Retrieved on 2015-04-18.
  32. "Site of Oakland’s Whole Foods has complex history", East Bay Times, December 5, 2013
  34. "Key System in Preserved North American Electric Cars Roster". Retrieved on 2009-08-18.
  35. Virginia & Truckee. (1902-07-14). Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  36. California Highways and Public Works, March-April 1963, pp.61-64
  37. 1 2 "Oakland's new Sutter Regional Shoreline park now open". East Bay Times. 2020-10-18. Retrieved 2020-10-31.


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