Access by train/transit:
All BART lines except for the "orange" Freemont-Richmond line, Powell St and
Embarcadero St stations MUNI Streetcar, Trolley
San Francisco has the last manually operated Cable Car trolley system in the world. They are also one of only two "moving" national historic monuments, the New Orleans Charles Street trolleys being the other ones.
The cable cars on the Powell street lines are single-ended, which is why they need to be turned around. They are turned around on turn-tables called turnarounds. The public and riders used to be able to help turn
the cars around, but now ARE NOT allowed. I'm sure lawsuits had something to do with this decision.
The California Street cars are double-ended, because there is no turntable for them, which makes the cars a
little longer. The cars go into a "tail-track" to reverse direction (tail-track is a term used in light rail).
Interesting note from Wikipedia about the "car-barn": 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".
What cities still have cable cars?
Many cities once had cable cars, but today, San Francisco's Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde, and California Street lines are the only ones left in the world. The Powell Street cable lines and the F-line
form an 'iron triangle' of historic transit service between Downtown San Francisco and Fisherman's Wharf.
The cable car started out in San Francisco as a solution for traversing its steep hills. However, others realized that it could replace animal power as well. The cable car was cheaper, faster, cleaner,
and stronger than animal power. By the turn of the nineteenth century, every large United States' city had a cable car line except Boston, Detroit, and New Orleans. Although the cable car rose quickly
in popularity, it fell almost as fast. Today, San Francisco has the only operating cable cars in the United States.
The picture below is from Los Angles when they were tearing up the abandoned
cable car tracks on Second Ave. Picture from the Southland website
listed below. It's a shame - all that money wasted on a 20-30 year
investment in most places!
The first cable car was launched on San Francisco’s Clay Street on
September 1, 1873. Through the years, cable cars that remained became
automated and electrified; however, San Francisco’s cable cars are still
Cable Cars have no engine or motor on the cars themselves. The power source is centralized in the cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets
(also home to the Cable Car Museum). There, powerful electric motors (originally a stationary steam-powered engine) drive giant winding wheels that pull cables through a trench beneath the street,
centered under the cable car tracks (that’s what’s in that slot between the tracks).
There are actually four cables, one for the California line, one for Powell Street, and one each for the outer ends of the two Powell lines (Mason and Hyde). Each cable has its own set of winding wheels. The rearmost winding wheel in each set is adjustable. When a cable is new, this rearmost wheel is close to the other winding wheels. As the cable naturally stretches out with use, the wheel is gradually
moved back by shop workers to keep constant tension on the cable. The cables are over an inch in diameter, with six steel strands of 19 wires each wrapped around a core of sisal rope.
Each cable car has a mechanical grip (two on the double-end California cars) which latches onto the cable, much like a huge pair of pliers. The gripman (or gripwoman
-- two women in history have served
in that position; we’ll use ‘gripman’ to represent all, uh, grippers) can ‘take’ or ‘drop’ the ‘rope’ (as the cable is called) as needed to start or stop the car. The cables move at a constant 9.5
miles per hour. If a cable car is going faster than that, it’s a sure thing that the car is going downhill and the grip is not holding the rope tightly.
Taking and Dropping the ‘Rope’
At some terminals, you will notice the conductor pulling on a lever in the street. This lifts the cable upward so the grip can grasp it. At other terminals (and at other locations on the system), you
will see a noticeable dip in the tracks. This lowers the car, and its grip, to the level of the cable underneath, allowing the grip to grasp the cable.
Among other locations, this happens in both directions where the Powell and California cable lines cross. Adhering to the original cable tradition, the California line, which was built first (in 1878)
is entitled to the upper cable. This means California Street cable cars hold onto the “rope” (cable) as they cross Powell Street.
The Powell Street cable cars, by contrast, must drop the cable from the grip before they cross the California Street tracks. If there were no safeguards built into the system, a Powell cable car that
held onto the cable too long at this point could pull the lower Powell cable up against the higher California cable and the Powell car’s grip could hit and potentially sever the California Street cable.
To prevent the possibility of this happening, there is an alarm system and mechanism under Powell Street on either side of the California tracks to physically force the Powell cable from the grip if it
is held too long. This can damage both the cable and the grip.
Fortunately, because of the skill of the gripmen this almost never happens. Watch a Powell gripman approaching this corner, particularly headed north from Market Street. The gripman has to crest the hill
firmly gripping the cable. Then, with one hand clanging the bell to keep crossing automobiles from getting in his way, he throws the grip lever forward with his other hand just in time, then coasts
with a clatter across the California tracks.
A small tower on the southeast corner of California and Powell holds a Muni employee who signals with lights to cable cars on both lines whose turn it is to crest the hill. This is designed to prevent
the possibility of cable cars hitting each other at the intersection. The
tower is shown above in the Signals section.
After the Powell cable car crosses the California tracks, it reaches one of the dips in the pavement
(the green arrow in the picture below points to one of the dips), allowing it to “take rope” (reattach to the cable). For Powell cars headed toward Market Street,
this happens immediately, before they descend the steep hill to Pine Street. For Wharf-bound Powell cars, however, the
dip in the pavement doesn’t come for more than three blocks, where the two Powell lines
split, and each gets its own cable. For those three blocks of comparatively gentle downgrade, the Powell cars “freewheel” (run without the cable). This often makes for the fastest part of the trip,
since the car is limited to 9.5 miles an hour when it’s holding the cable firmly.
While being a gripman today is a very tough job, consider those on the last all-new cable car line to open, on O’Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Streets in 1891. As the new kid on the block, its cable had to be
“inferior” (lower) to older cable lines at every crossing. This meant the gripman on that line (from which a cable car has been preserved and beautifully restored) had to drop the rope no less than 22
times on every round-trip!
Stopping a cable car
Cable cars have three kinds of brakes, all very simple: wheel brakes, track brakes, and an emergency brake. Each wheel has a soft steel shoe that can be pulled tight against the wheel to stop the car.
These are crew-activated by foot pedals on both ends of the California cars, and on the front end of the Powell cars. A conductor’s lever on the rear platform activates rear track brakes on Powell cars.
Track brakes are simply pieces of wood located between the wheel sets on the cars. There are four for each car, two feet long each, made of soft Monterey Fir. When the gripman pulls back on the track-brake
lever (next to the cable grip lever), the blocks press against the tracks to help stop the car.
The emergency brake is just that. If a cable car gets into a situation where the other brakes won’t stop the car (a very rare situation), the gripman pulls back on the red emergency brake lever. This forces
an 18-inch steel wedge into the steel slot between the tracks, stopping the car immediately. (The force is so great that sometimes it takes a cutting torch to get the wedge out of the slot.)
Turning cable cars around
When single-end Powell Street cable cars reach the ends of the line they are turned around on giant turntables. These are completely mechanical, relying on ball bearings and rollers to move. The cables
under the street reverse separately, away from the turntable, wrapping around a large wheel in an underground bunker called a “sheave pit.”
The turntable areas are engineered so that gripmen can simply release the brake and coast onto the turntables. (They have already released the cable at this point.) Once on the turntable, they set the
brakes on the car, then climb off, and together with the conductor, reverse the car by either grabbing a stanchion on each end and walking the car around, or using the pipework mounted on all turntables in
the past couple of decades to turn the table without touching the cable car itself.
Until the 1970s, passengers were allowed to help the crews turn the cable cars, but this is no longer permitted. Also until that time, passengers could jump onto the cable car as soon as the gripman began
coasting toward the turntable, getting a free spin on the turntable as well as guaranteeing the seat of their choice for the upcoming ride. This too is now forbidden for safety reasons, with boarding
is strictly controlled by a queue.
The California Street cars were built with grips and brakes at each end precisely so turntables would not be necessary. The gripman operates the car through a switch at the end of the line. After applying
the brakes, the gripman and conductor switch places, and the cable car goes in the other direction. The switch at the terminal has a spring on it to keep it aligned with the departure track, thus preventing
Since the cables cars use the regular street
signaling to control their moves, there is no need for a separate signal system.
The only place there is a signal to control their moves is at California and
Powell, where the two lines intersect in a set double crossovers. The
cable cars have to drop the cable when going over the diamonds.
The museum is located at Mason and Washington Streets. Behind the
museum is a carbarn, or "garage" as they call it.
Info on the museum:
This building at Washington & Mason Streets is both a museum open to
visitors and a functioning cable car "garage", powering movement of the
underground cables and providing a repair and renovation space for the cars.
The museum is admission-free and open 10am - 6pm (April - September),
and 10am - 5pm (October - March) every day except Christmas, New Year's Day,
Easter, & Thanksgiving. 415-474-1887.
The facility was re-opened in June 1984 following an $18 million dollar
complete re-build, concurrent with the renovation of the entire system.
It was first renovated and opened to the public in 1967, and established
as a museum in 1974.
Use of this site as a car barn and powerhouse dates back to the 1880s,
and the current structure is similar in appearance to the original one.
More facts from their website:
Cable cars are "driven" by gripping cables that are constantly moving
through two-foot deep tunnels under the street
Powell Street and California Street is the only point where two
different lines cross paths. The small signal booth at the intersection
signals right-of-way for approaching cars.
Operators on the Powell lines must "drop" or let go of the cable at
California Street, otherwise the crossing cables would be pulled into
contact with each other.
The newest cable car in the fleet is the distinctive yellow car 15,
which was put into service in June 2009. It was built from scratch using
100-year-old blueprints, and cost $823,000.
Riders and bystanders used to help turn the cable cars around on the
turntables. The public is no longer allowed to assist with car turning.
In 1964, a cable car ride cost 15 cents. The New York City subways
was also 15 cents at the time.
Courtesy of the University of Texas Library, click
their index page.
I love trains, and I love signals. I am not an
expert. My webpages reflect what I find on the topic of the page.
This is something I have fun with while trying to help others. My
webpages are an attempt at putting everything I can find of the subject in
one convenient place. There are plenty of other good websites to help
me in this effort, and they are listed in the links section on my indexa
page, or as needed on individual pages. Please do not write to me
about something that may be incorrect, and then hound the heck out of me if
I do not respond to you in the manner you would like. I operate on the
"Golden Rule Principle", and if you are not familiar with it, please
acquaint yourself with how to treat people by reading Mathew 7:12 (among
others, the principle exists in almost every religion). If you contact
me (like some do, hi Paul) and try to make it a "non-fun" thing and start
with the name calling, your name will go into my spambox list! :-)
Since the main focus of my two websites is railroad signals, the railfan guides
are oriented towards the signal fan being able to locate them. For those
of you into the modeling aspect of our hobby, my
indexa page has a list of
almost everything railroad oriented I can think of to provide you with at least a few pictures to
help you detail your pike.
If this is a railfan page, every effort has
been made to make sure that the information contained on this map and in this
railfan guide is correct. Once in a while, an error may creep in,
especially if restaurants or gas stations open, close, or change names.
Most of my maps are a result of personal observation after visiting these
locations. I have always felt that a picture is worth a thousand words",
and I feel annotated maps such as the ones I work up do the same justice for the
railfan over a simple text description of the area. Since the main focus
of my website is railroad signals, the railfan guides are oriented towards the
signal fan being able to locate them. Since most of us railheads don't have just
trains as a hobby, I have also tried to point out where other interesting sites
of the area are.... things like fire stations, neat bridges, or other
significant historical or geographical feature. While some may feel they
shouldn't be included, these other things tend to make MY trips a lot more
interesting.... stuff like where the C&O Canal has a bridge going over a river (the Monocacy Aqueduct) between Point of Rocks and Gaithersburg MD, it's way cool to
realize this bridge to support a water "road" over a river was built in the
My philosophy: Pictures and maps are worth a
thousand words, especially for railfanning. Text descriptions only
get you so far, especially if you get lost or disoriented. Take
along good maps.... a GPS is OK to get somewhere, but maps are still
better if you get lost! I belong to AAA, which allows you to get
local maps for free when you visit the local branches. ADC puts
out a nice series of county maps for the Washington DC area, but their
state maps do not have the railroads on them. If you can find em,
I like the National Geographic map book of the U.S..... good, clear, and
concise graphics, and they do a really good job of showing you where
tourist type attractions are, although they too lack the railroads.
Other notes about specific areas will show up on that page if known.
By the way, floobydust is
a term I picked up 30-40 years ago from a National Semiconductor data
book, and means miscellaneous and/or other stuff.
Pictures and additional information is always needed if anyone feels
inclined to take 'em, send 'em, and share 'em, or if you have
something to add or correct.... credit is always given! BE NICE!!! Contact info
Beware: If used as a source, ANYTHING from Wikipedia must be treated as
being possibly being inaccurate, wrong, or not true.