Key System

Key System

The Key System (or Key Route) was a privately owned company which provided mass transit in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda [ [ Old Alameda's transit system was less confusing] ] , Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, Richmond, Albany and El Cerrito in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area from 1903 until 1960, when the system was sold to a newly formed public agency, AC Transit.Fact|date=February 2008

The Key System consisted of local streetcar and bus lines operating solely in the East Bay, and a network of commuter rail and bus lines connecting cities and neighborhoods in the East Bay to San Francisco by way of a ferry pier extending out into San Francisco Bay, and later, via the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over convert|66|mi|km of track that connected the communities of Richmond, Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro with each other and to San Francisco.

The local streetcars were discontinued in 1948 and the commuter trains to San Francisco were discontinued in 1958. The Key System's original territory is today served by BART and AC Transit bus service.


The system was a consolidation of several smaller streetcar lines assembled in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, an entrepreneur who made a fortune in his namesake mineral, and then turned to real estate and electric traction. The Key System began as the "San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway (SFOSJR)", incorporated in 1902. Service began on October 26, 1903 with a 4-car train carrying 250 passengers, departing downtown Berkeley for the ferry pier. Before the end of that same year, the general manager of the SFOSJR came up with the idea of using a stylized map on which the system's routes were laid out on the pattern of an old-fashioned key, with three "handle loops" that covered the East Bay 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 eventually led to the company adopting the name "Key System".

In 1908, the SFOSJR changed its name to the San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Consolidated Railway. This was again changed to the San Francisco-Oakland Terminal Railway in 1912. This incarnation of the Key system went bankrupt in December 1923, and was re-organized as the Key System Transit Co., transforming what had begun as a marketing buzzword into the name of the company.

Following the Great Crash of 1929, the name was changed yet again as part of another re-organization. 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 simply the Key System.

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

ystem details

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) across the Bay to a ferry terminal near Yerba Buena Island. Filling for the nascent causeway had actually been started by a short-lived narrow gauge railroad company in the late 1800s, the California and Nevada Railroad. "Borax" Smith acquired the causeway from the California and Nevada upon its bankruptcy. The Key System operated a fleet of ferries between the Key Route Pier [ [ Exhibit Name: Trains of Oakland] , Oakland Museum of California] and the San Francisco Ferry Building until 1939 when a new dual track opened on 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 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, designed and constructed 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).

The design of the Key's 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 San Francisco – Oakland Bay 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 cream white with a pale green stripe at the window level. 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 World War II, the roofs were painted gray for aerial camouflage. 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

Until the Bay Bridge railway began operation, the Key commuter trains had no letter designation. They were named for the principal street or district they served.
*A - Downtown Oakland (was extended far into East Oakland to near the San Leandro border on the competing Southern Pacific interurban (see East Bay Electric Lines) tracks when they shut down their operations in 1941)
*B - Lakeshore and Trestle Glen (originally ran through a Key hotel, the Key Route Inn at Grand and Broadway in Oakland; the Inn burned down in the 1930s)
*C - Piedmont (Via 40th Street and Piedmont Avenue; alongside Pleasant Valley and Arroyo avenues; and between York Drive and Ricardo Avenue to terminus at Oakland Avenue)
*E - Claremont (ran directly to the Claremont Hotel, terminating on a track between the two tennis courts; today the tennis courts remain in place)
*F - Berkeley / Adeline Street (was also extended on former Southern Pacific interurban tracks on Shattuck beyond University Avenue and through the SP's Northbrae Tunnel, terminating at Solano Avenue and The Alameda
*G - Westbrae Shuttle (actually, a streetcar shuttle providing a connection at University Avenue with the H transbay train)
*H - Monterey Avenue (originally, the Sacramento Street Line; the original line ran up Hopkins, but was switched to the SP's old tracks up Monterey after 1941)
*K - College Avenue (also a streetcar shuttle providing a connection at Shattuck Avenue with the F transbay train); this line ran extra cars and was heavily used on football game days as its terminus was only a few blocks away from UC's Memorial Stadium
*D was reserved for a proposed line into Montclair alongside the Sacramento Northern interurban railway

The A, B, C, E and F lines were the last rail lines operating in the system's final years. Train service ended on April 20, 1958, replaced by buses utilizing the same letter designations. These same letter designations were preserved by A.C. Transit when it took over the Key System, and are still in use; AC Transit's B, C, E and F lines follow more or less the same routes today that the correspondingly designated Key routes took.

East Bay Street Railways

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 "East Bay Transit Co.," reflecting the increasing use of buses. The numbering of the streetcar lines changed several times over the years. The Key'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 located in the east Oakland district of Elmhurst. 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 painted green and cream white until they were re-painted in the green and yellow scheme of National City Lines after NCL acquired the Key System. The last Key streetcars ran in 1948.

Related Rail Systems

*The Key System organized its freight business in 1929 as the Key Terminal Railway, Ltd. In 1938, the name was changed to the Oakland Terminal Rail"road", Ltd. In 1943 the Oakland Terminal Railroad was jointly purchased by the Western Pacific and the Santa Fe Railway and is now known as the Oakland Terminal Railway (OTR).
*See also the East Bay Electric Lines; another transbay commuter rail system operated by the Southern Pacific in the East Bay until 1941.
*See also the Sacramento Northern Railroad, an interurban system running from Chico through Sacramento to Oakland which also used some of the Key System's trackage as well as the Key System's ferry pier, and later ran to the Transbay Terminal until 1941.

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.


The Key System's famed commuter train system was dismantled in 1958 after many years of declining ridership as well as the effort by National City Lines, a General Motors affiliate which had bought up the system in the late 1940s to petition the public utility board to abandon the last rail lines. In 1949, a Federal Court convicted General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and others of criminally conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to their subsidiary transit companies throughout the U.S. They were fined $5,000. [See appeals court ruling:] State planners anxious to embrace California's postwar love for the automobile also pushed to have the track across the Bay Bridge and street rights of way removed to increase highway and street capacity. Local governments in the East Bay attempted to purchase the Key System, but were unsuccessful. The last run for the Key System's rail system was on April 20, 1958. In 1960, the newly-formed, publicly owned AC Transit took over the Key System's facilities.

Most of the rolling stock was scrapped, and some of the rest sold and shipped off for operation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A few of the bridge units were salvaged for collections in the United States. Two are at the Western Railway Museum near Rio Vista, California while another is at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in southern California.


Signs of the system still remain.

*The elevated loop at San Francisco's Transbay Transit Terminal still exists, and with some modifications to the original design, is currently used by AC Transit buses to drop off passengers and return to the East Bay as the Key System once did. This will be further modified when the Transbay Terminal is replaced with a new structure scheduled for completion in 2012.

*The eastern end of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge sits on landfill which was added to the northern edge of the causeway which carried the Key System railbed to the "mole," or ferry piers.

*A stretch of road in Albany that was built with a wide median for a planned extension of the G-Westbrae line (but never constructed) is named "Key Route Boulevard."

*The Claremont Hotel, built by a Key System affiliate company, The Realty Syndicate, survives as the Claremont Resort.

*The Key System's administrative headquarters building still exists in downtown Oakland and is a designated national landmark. The building suffered some damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and is currently unoccupied.

*A building which today houses a restaurant at 41st Street and Piedmont Avenue in Oakland is the partial remnant of what was formerly a covered stop for trains on the C-line. (The tracks followed 40th Street and 40th Street Way, crossed Howe Street and curved through the parking lot behind Piedmont Avenue shops, then merged onto Piedmont Avenue at 41st Street and headed toward Pleasant Valley Avenue.) There are old photos of the Key System on the walls of the restaurant as well as a mural of Key System images on one of its outside walls.

*The old Key System Piedmont shops building at Bay Place and Harrison is now a Whole Foods market. This building was originally built in 1890 as the shops and power house of the Piedmont Cable Car Co.

*The bus yards of today's AC Transit in Emeryville and Richmond were originally the bus yards of the Key System.

*Several streetcars and bridge trains from the Key System are preserved at the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction in Solano county.

*An abandoned Key System railroad overcrossing still exists on Rose St. in Berkeley just west of California St.

External pictures

* ["Key System #182 sitting in the car barn at the Western Railway Museum, Sept. 1990."]
* [ Key System bridge unit in Oakland, 1954.]
* [ A gallery of Key System images]
* [ Another image gallery]
* [ Postcard: Key Route Pier]
* [ Images from]
* [ Photo: Key System train on Key Mole adjacent to new Bay Bridge, 1936]

External links

* [ The Key System presents: The March of Progress] (1945 documentary)
** [ Stills from the documentary]
* [ Commercial DVD detailing the history of the system]
* [ Oakland Berkeley & Eastern]
* [ Bay Area Rails]



* "The Key Route", 2v., Harre Demoro, Interurban Press, 1985.
* "Key System Streetcars", Vernon J. Sappers, Signature Press, 2007
* "Key System Gallery", James H. Harrison, Shade Tree Books, 2006
* "Electric Railways Around San Francisco Bay, Vol. 1", Donald Duke, Golden West Books, 1999

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