CA: Muni Mechanic Makes the Wheels on the Bus Go Round

July 30--Tommy To grew up in the Richmond District riding the 31-Balboa electric trolley bus. Now he works on it.

To, 35, is an electrical transit systems mechanic at the Presidio Maintenance Division of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Starting at 7 a.m., he is either down in a pit working on a bus parked above him or up on the roof of a coach fixing the poles that attach to overhead wires.

The Presidio fleet is 157 trolley buses that we maintain. They run on the 1-California, 3-Jackson, 5-Fulton, 21-Hayes, 30-Stockton, 31-Balboa and 45-Union.

When I get here in the morning, there are usually four or five coaches that have pulled out of service for repairs. Those are the top priority. If it is a headlight or something quick, we fix it and send it back out. If it is something big, it goes to heavy overhaul.

After that, there are two or three coaches holding for preventative maintenance. Every 1,500 miles, we bring them in and check them out. We make sure they pass a safety inspection. We check the brakes, doors, suspension, steering, lights, and then we put them back in service. We are expected to inspect seven coaches per day.

When we work in the pit, we are 6 feet under the ground. It is 200 feet long. There is usually one guy in the pit and we rotate. If I'm in the pit, I'm here all day, eight hours. When you are working, it always goes fast. All the work is overhead, and it is hard on the arms.

Checking everything

We inspect the bottom of the coach. Sometimes the traction motor, which propels the coach, is worn out and we have to change it. Also, the tires, brakes, drive shaft, steering, wheelchair lifts. We check the suspension to make sure there are no leaks or crack in it. We check all the lights and check all the switch components to make sure they are working properly and make sure the trolley system is working OK. We check the batteries and make sure they are all filled up.

Trolleys are completely electrical, powered by 600 volts on overhead wires. The trolley poles get damaged by normal wear and tear or when they accidentally jump off the wires. Then they can bend the poles. Over time they get cracked. In order to fix it, we shut down the whole coach to make sure everything is safe. We climb up on the roof and take off the trolley pole and take off the base the poles are attached to. We have to change the whole base out.

All sorts of vehicles

I've been in this shop almost three years. I worked one year at another shop.

I've been working on vehicles since I was 17. I worked in several independent shops. I went to George Washington High, class of 1996. More than half the guys who work here went to Washington. I went to Skyline College for the Toyota program, but I never worked in a Toyota dealership. I worked at the San Francisco Honda dealership for six years.

I came to Muni to learn different types of vehicles. I started off as a project mechanic on the 60-foot articulated trolley coaches at the Potrero Division. I transferred to Presidio because it is closer to home.

All I remember from being a kid on the 31-Balboa is fighting. I still live in the same place, in the Richmond, 10 minutes from here. I drive a Honda Accord. A stick shift will last forever.

No desire to drive

Mechanics never become drivers. The pay is better for mechanics, and you don't have to deal with the public. But we still do when we go out on road calls to fix the wires. When a coach is stuck on the road, you've got 100 eyes looking at you and a couple of coaches stuck behind and you are trying to fix something.

I would love to work on the F-Market line of historic streetcars when I get older. I want to try all different divisions.

My day ends at 3:30. Get the dustpan and sweep up the pit. We have degreaser to clean up the arms and hands. Somebody picks up our uniforms and takes them out to be cleaned.

I'm the pingpong champion of the Presidio Division. I play every day at lunch or break time. No mercy.

Trolley bus mechanic: To watch a short video, go to www.sfgate.com/news/item/Tommy-To-29608.php.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @samwhitingsf

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