San Francisco cable car system

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San Francisco Cable Car No. 13 as it looked in 1994.
San Francisco Cable Car No. 13 as it looked in 1994.

The San Francisco cable car system is the world's last permanently operational manually operated cable car system, and is now an icon of the city of San Francisco in California. The cable car system forms part of the intermodal urban transport network operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni as it is better known. The cable cars are used by commuters, but their low speed, small service area, and premium fares make them primarily a tourist attraction.




The first successful cable-operated street railway was the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which opened in 1873. The promoter of the line was Andrew Smith Hallidie, and the engineer was William Eppelsheimer. The line involved the use of grip cars, which carried the grip that engaged with the cable, towing trailer cars. The design was the first to use grips.

The line started regular service on September 1, 1873, and it was such a success that it became the model for other cable car transit systems in San Francisco and elsewhere. It was a financial success, and Hallidie's patents were enforced on other cable car promoters, making him a rich man.

Accounts differ as to exactly how involved Hallidie was in the inception of the line, and to the exact date it first ran. See the article Clay Street Hill Railroad for more information on this subject.


The next cable car line to open was the Sutter Street Railway, which converted from horse operation in 1877. This line introduced the side grip, and lever operation, both designed by Asa Hovey. Subsequent experience showed that the bottom grip was preferable because of the relative ease of dropping and picking up the cable.

In 1878 Leland Stanford opened his California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable). This company's first line was on California Street and is the oldest cable car line still in operation. In 1880, the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railway began operation. The Presidio & Ferries Railway followed two years later, and was the first cable company to include curves on its routes. The curves were let-go curves, where the car drops the cable and coasts around the curve on its own momentum.

In 1883 the Market Street Cable Railway opened its first line. This company was controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad and was to grow to become San Francisco's largest cable car operator. At its peak, it operated five lines all of which converged into Market Street to a common terminus at the Ferry Building; during rush hours a cable car left that terminus every 15 seconds.

In 1888, the Ferries and Cliff House Railway opened its initial two-line system. The Powell-Mason line is still operated on exactly the same route today; their other route was the Washington-Jackson line, stretches of which are used by today's Powell-Hyde line. The Presidio & Ferries Railway was also responsible for the building of a carbarn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason, and this site is still in use today. In the same year, it also purchased the original Clay Street Hill Railway, which it incorporated into a new Sacramento-Clay line.

In 1889, the Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company became the last new cable car operator in San Francisco. The following year the California Street Cable Railroad opened two new lines, these being the last entirely new cable car lines built in the city. One of them was the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line, the Hyde section of which still remains in operation as part of today's Powell-Hyde line.


The first electric streetcars in San Francisco began operation in 1892. At that time, it was estimated that it cost twice as much to build and six times as much to operate a line with cable cars as with electric streetcar. Not surprisingly, San Francisco's cable car lines soon came under pressure.

By the beginning of 1906, many of San Francisco's remaining cable cars were under the control of the United Railroads company (URR), although Cal Cable and the Geary Street company remained independent. URR was pressing to convert many of its cable lines to overhead electric traction, but this was being resisted by opponents who objected to what they saw as ugly overhead lines on the major thoroughfares of the city center.

But at 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, those objections were swept away as the great San Francisco earthquake struck. The quake and resulting fire destroyed the power houses and car barns of both the Cal Cable and the URR's Powell Street lines, together with the 117 cable cars stored within them. The race to rebuild the city also allowed the URR to replace most of its cable car lines with electric streetcar lines. At the same time the independent Geary Street line was replaced by a municipally owned electric streetcar line, the first line of the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

By 1912, only eight cable car lines remained, all with steep gradients impassable to electric streetcars. In the 1920s and 1930s these lines came under pressure from the much improved buses of the era, which could now climb steeper hills than the electric streetcar. By 1944, the only cable cars remaining were the two Powell Street lines, by then in municipal ownership, and the three lines owned by the still independent Cal Cable.

Fight back

In 1947, Mayor Roger Lapham proposed the closure of the two municipally owned lines. In response a joint meeting of 27 women's civic groups, led by Friedel Klussmann, formed the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cable Cars. In a famous battle of wills, the citizens' committee eventually forced a referendum on an amendment to the city charter, compelling the city to continue operating the Powell Street lines. This passed overwhelmingly, by 166,989 votes to 51,457.

In 1951, the three Cal Cable lines were shut down when the company was unable to afford insurance. The city purchased and reopened the lines in 1952, but the amendment to the city charter did not protect them, and the city proceeded with plans to replace them with buses. Again Klussmann came to the rescue, but with less success this time. The result was a compromise: a protected system made up of the California Street line from Cal Cable, the Powell-Mason line already in municipal ownership, and a third hybrid line formed by grafting the Hyde Street section of Cal Cable's O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line onto a truncated Powell-Washington-Jackson line (now known as the Powell-Hyde line).

This solution required some rebuilding to convert the Hyde Street trackage and terminus to operation by the single-ended cars of the Powell line, and also to allow the whole system to be operated from a single car barn and power house. But much of the infrastructure remained unchanged from the time of the earthquake.


By 1979 the cable car system had become unsafe, and it needed to be urgently closed for 7 months for repairs. Even after this it was clear that the system still needed a lot of work, and in 1982 it was closed again for a complete rebuild. This involved the complete replacement of 69 city blocks' worth of tracks and cable channels, the demolition and rebuilding of the car barn and powerhouse, new propulsion equipment, and the repair or rebuild of 37 cable cars. The system finally reopened on June 21, 1984, just in time to benefit from the publicity that accompanied San Francisco's hosting of that year's Democratic National Convention.

Since 1984, Muni has continued to upgrade the system. Work has included rebuilding a further car, the building of a further 9 brand new replacement cars, the building of a new terminal and turntable at the Hyde and Beach terminus, and a new turntable at the Powell and Market terminus.



A cable car on the Powell & Market turntable.
A cable car on the Powell & Market turntable.

The current cable car network consists of three lines:

  • The Powell-Hyde line runs north and steeply uphill from a terminal at Powell and Market Streets, before crossing the California Street line at the crest of the hill. Downhill from this crest it turns left and uphill again along Jackson Street (as this is one-way, cable cars in the opposite direction use the parallel Washington Street), to a crest at Hyde Street. Here it turns right and downhill along Hyde Street to the Hyde and Beach terminal, which is adjacent to the waterfront at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
  • The Powell-Mason line shares the tracks of the Powell-Hyde line as far as Mason Street, where it crosses Washington and Jackson streets. Here the line turns right and downhill along Mason Street, briefly half left along Columbus Avenue, and then down Taylor Street to a terminal at Taylor and Bay. This terminus is near to, but several blocks back from, the waterfront at Fisherman's Wharf.
  • The California Street line runs due west from a terminal at California and Market Streets, close to the junction of Market with the waterfront Embarcadero. The whole of the line lies on California Street, running at first uphill to the summit of Nob Hill, then more gently downhill to a terminus at Van Ness Avenue.

There is also a set of non-revenue tracks from the California Street line along Hyde Street to join the Powell-Hyde line at Hyde and Washington. This is used by cars from the California Street line to reach the car barn.

Cable Car No. 58 traverses the California Street line in December, 2004.
Cable Car No. 58 traverses the California Street line in December, 2004.

There are turntables at the three terminals served by the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines, and these two lines are served by a common fleet of single-ended cable cars. The California Street line, on the other hand, is served by a separate fleet of double-ended cars and its two terminals are simple single-track stubs.

The cable car system connects at both its terminals on Market Street with the F Market heritage streetcar line. The Taylor and Bay terminal, and the Hyde and Beach terminal, are both short walks from the F Market line.


As previously mentioned, there are two fleets of cable cars in San Francisco:

  • Single-ended cars serve the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines. These cars have an open-sided front section, with outward-facing seats flanking the gripman and his collection of levers that actuate the grip and various brakes. The rear half of the car is enclosed, with seats facing inward and entrances at each end. These cars are 27 ft 6 in (8.6 m) long and 8 ft (2.4 m) wide and weigh 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg). They have a passenger capacity of 60, 29 of them seated.
  • Double-ended cars serve the California Street line. These cars are somewhat longer, having open-sided grip sections at both ends and an enclosed section in the middle. These cars are 30 ft 3 in (9.2 m) long and 8 ft (2.4 m) wide and weigh 16,800 pounds (7,620 kg). They can hold 68 passengers, 34 of them seated.

Both types of car ride on a pair of four-wheel trucks. The term California Street car, as in a car running on the California Street line, should not be confused with the term California Car. The latter term applies to all the cars currently operating in San Francisco, and is a historical term distinguishing this style of car from an earlier style where the open grip section and the enclosed section were separate four-wheel cars (known as the grip car and trailer).

Car barn, power house and museum

An interior view of the power house.
An interior view of the power house.

The car barn is located between Washington and Jackson Streets just uphill of where Mason Street crosses them. Cars reverse into the barn off Jackson Street and run out into Washington Street, coasting downhill for both moves. To ensure that single-ended cars leave facing in the correct direction, the car barn contains a fourth turntable. Cars are moved around the car barn with the assistance of a rubber-tired tractor.

The car barn is situated directly above the power house and the Cable Car Museum. The museum's entrance is at Washington and Mason. It contains several examples of old cable cars, together with smaller exhibits and a shop. Perhaps of more interest are two galleries which allow the visitor to overlook the main power house, and also to descend below the junction of Washington and Mason Streets and see the large cavern where the haulage cables are routed out to the street.

There are four separate cables: one for the California Street line, one each for the separate parts of the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines, and one for their common section. Each cable is 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, running at a constant speed of 9.5 mph (15.3 km/h), and driven by a 510 horsepower (380 kW) electric motor via a set of self-adjusting sheaves.

Grip men and conductors

A view of the controls inside Cable Car No. 58.
A view of the controls inside Cable Car No. 58.

The driver of a cable car is known as the grip man. This is a highly skilled job, requiring the grip man to release the grip at certain points in order to coast the vehicle over the pulleys or another line, and to anticipate well in order to avoid collisions with other traffic that may not understand the limitations of a cable car. Only a small proportion of people who attempt the training course actually pass it. There has only been one grip woman.

Besides the grip man, each cable car carries a conductor whose job is to collect fares and manage the boarding and exiting of passengers. With the common practice of carrying standing passengers on the running boards of cable cars, passenger management is an important task.

Prospective cable car crews are screened to ensure that they have a good personality and are suitable for dealing with large numbers of tourists and leaving a good impression of the city, and some crew members are locally well-known personalities. On the third Thursday of every July in Union Square, a cable car bell ringing contest is traditionally held between cable car crews.


  • Wikipedia editors (2004). Cable car (railway). Revised 02:02 GMT, December 31, 2004.
  • Val Lupiz and Walter Rice (2004). San Francisco: cable cars are here to stay. Tramways & Urban Transit: October 2004. Light Rail Transit Association and Ian Allan Publishing Ltd.
  • Robert Callwell and Walter Rice (2000) Of Cables and Grips: The Cable Cars of San Francisco, Friends of the Cable Car Museum. ISBN unknown

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