San Francisco Cable Cars

Monday, 1 July 2019 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, San Francisco Bay Area
Reading Time:  11 minutes

© Runner1928/cc-by-sa-3.0

© Runner1928/cc-by-sa-3.0

The San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. An icon of San Francisco, the cable car system forms part of the intermodal urban transport network operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Of the 23 lines established between 1873 and 1890, only three remain (one of which combines parts of two earlier lines): two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, and a third route along California Street.

While the cable cars are used to a certain extent by commuters, the vast majority of their 7 million annual passengers are tourists. They are among the most significant tourist attractions in the city, along with Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf. The cable cars are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The cable cars are separate from San Francisco’s heritage streetcars, which operate on Market Street and the Embarcadero, as well as from the more modern Muni Metro light rail system.

In 1869, Andrew Smith Hallidie had the idea for a cable car system in San Francisco, reportedly after witnessing an accident in which a streetcar drawn by horses over wet cobblestones slid backwards, killing the horses. The first successful cable-operated street railway was the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which opened on August 2, 1873. The promoter of the line was 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 term “grip” became synonymous with the operator. The line started regular service on September 1, 1873, and its success led it to become the template for other cable car transit systems. It was a financial success, and Hallidie’s patents were enforced on other cable car promoters, making him wealthy. Accounts differ as to the precise degree of Hallidie’s involvement in the inception of the line, and to the exact date on which it first ran.

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 Henry Casebolt and his assistant Asa Hovey, and patented by Casebolt. This idea came about because Casebolt did not want to pay Hallidie royalties of $50,000 a year for the use of his patent. The side grip allowed cable cars to cross at intersections. 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 and Ferries Railway followed two years later, and was the first cable company to include curves on its routes. The curves were “let-go” curves, in which 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 would grow to become San Francisco’s largest cable car operator. At its peak, it operated five lines, all of which converged on Market Street to a common terminus at the Ferry Building. During rush hours, cars 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 the same route today; their other route was the Powell–Washington–Jackson line, stretches of which are used by today’s Powell–Hyde line. The Ferries & Cliff House Railway was also responsible for the building of a car barn 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 1892. In 1889, the Omnibus Railroad and 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–Hyde line, the Hyde section of which still remains in operation as part of the current Powell–Hyde line. In all, twenty-three lines were established between 1873 and 1890. By 1912, only eight cable car lines remained, all with steep gradients impassable to electric streetcars. In the 1920s and 1930s, these remaining 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 under municipal ownership, as part of Muni – and the three lines owned by the still-independent Cal Cable.

© Dllu/cc-by-sa-4.0 © Runner1928/cc-by-sa-3.0 Powell & Market turntable © Chris Wood/cc-by-sa-4.0 © flickr.com - Ronnie Macdonald/cc-by-2.0 © Carol M. Highsmith - Library of Congress © Thomas Wolf - www.foto-tw.de/cc-by-sa-3.0 © Fred Hsu/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Powell & Market turntable © Chris Wood/cc-by-sa-4.0
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. The result was a compromise that formed the current system: 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. 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 closed for seven months for urgently needed repairs. A subsequent engineering evaluation concluded that it needed comprehensive rebuilding at a cost of $60 million. Mayor Dianne Feinstein took charge of the effort, and helped win federal funding for the bulk of the rebuilding job. In 1982 the cable car system was closed again for a complete rebuild. This involved the complete replacement of 69 city blocks’ worth of tracks and cable channels, the complete rebuilding of the car barn and powerhouse within the original outer brick walls, new propulsion equipment, and the repair or rebuild of 37 cable cars. The system reopened on June 21, 1984, 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 of another historical car, the building of nine 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. The cable cars are principally used by tourists rather than commuters. The system serves an area of the city that is already served by a large number of buses and trolleybuses. The two lines on Powell Street (Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason) both serve only residential and tourist/shopping districts (Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill, Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf), with the “downtown” end of both lines a substantial distance from the Financial District. The California Street Line is used more by commuters, due to its terminus in the Financial District. In 2006, then-mayor Gavin Newsom reported that he had observed several conductors pocketing cash fares from riders without receipt. The following year, the San Francisco auditor’s office reported that the city was not receiving the expected revenue from cable cars, with an estimated 40% of cable car riders riding for free. Muni’s management disputed this figure, and pointed out that safe operation, rather than revenue collection, is the primary duty of conductors. In 2017, after an audit showing that some conductors were “consistently turn[ing] in low amounts of cash” and a sting operation, one conductor was arrested on charges of felony embezzlement. Among US mass transportation systems the cable cars have the most accidents per year and per vehicle mile, with 126 accidents and 151 injuries reported in the 10 years ending 2013. In the three years ending 2013 the city paid some $8 million to settle four dozen cable car accident claims.

Read more on sfmta.com – San Francisco Cable Cars, sftodo.com – San Francisco Cable Cars, San Francisco Cable Car Museum and Wikipedia San Francisco Cable Cars (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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