Todd's Railfan Guide to
the Cable Cars

In General
Getting Here
What Makes Them Work?
the Cable Car Museum


In General

Location / Name:
    San Francisco

What's Here:
    the San Francisco Cable Car System

     GPS Coordinates: 
     37.793734, -122.396125 California St Tail Track
     37.784714, -122.407694 Powell/Market Turnaround
     37.805267, -122.415236 Powell/Mason Turnaround
     37.807041, -122.421244 Powell/Hyde Turnaround

Access by train/transit:
     All BART lines except for the "orange" Freemont-Richmond line, Powell St and Embarcadero St stations
     MUNI Streetcar, Trolley Bus

The Scoop:

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 manually operated.

National Cable-Car track mileage:


Websites and other additional information sources of interest for the area:
A couple of YouTube videos:  https://youtu.be/JCvRqBkIgEQ   https://youtu.be/sPXz-SMCpQA
http://southland.gizmodo.com/l-a-once-had-cable-cars-just-like-san-franciscos-1557233226 (excellent history of Los Angeles cable cars)

Aerial shots were taken from either Google Maps or www.bing.com/maps as noted.  Screen captures are made with Snagit, a Techsmith product... a great tool if you have never used it! 

Getting Here

If you're driving, there are many places to park.  If you park on the streets, make sure you check out the signs restricting times.  Otherwise.....

Via bus - too many lines to list, but the thumbnailed map below shows every line in San Francisco.

Via trolley-bus/trackless-trolley lines - the TT lines are shown on my map.


  About a block away from the California St Tail Track (Locator map C)

  Less than a block away from the Powell/Market Turnaround (Locator map B)

By MUNI/Streetcar:

  About a block away from the California St Tail Track (Locator map C)

  Less than a block away from the Powell/Market Turnaround (Locator map B)

      These three are 3 blocks away from the Powell/Mason turnaround (Locator map A)

  About 3 blocks away from the Hyde Street turnaround (Locator map D)




The above map in a PDF is here


Above, a larger map of the San Francisco area with ALL of the transit shown


the Powell / Hyde Turnaround

  From Beach St looking into the turnaround

  From Beach St looking up Hyde St at the waiting cars

California and Market Streets

  Looking into the tail track from Drumm Street

  Looking up California Street

  Looking up California Street at four cars waiting for turnaround

  Looking towards the tail track at the cars waiting for turnaround

What Makes Them Work?

The following discussion comes from the Market Street Railway website at: http://www.streetcar.org/wheels-motion/cable-cars-work/

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 possible derailments.

Cable Car Interiors and Details




GPS Coordinates: 37.792071, -122.409176

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 Cable Car Museum

GPS Coordinates: 37.794789, -122.411714
Website: http://www.sanfranciscodays.com/cable-cars/

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.




Cities that once had cable car systems (list compiled by Joe Thompson - his list contains way more information) :
CA Los Angeles Second Street Cable Railway
CA  Los Angeles  Temple Street Cable Railway
CA  Los Angeles  Los Angeles Cable Railway / Pacific Cable Railway
CA  Oakland Oakland Cable Railway
CA  Oakland  Consolidated Cable Company
CA  San Diego San Diego Cable Railway
CA  San Francisco Clay Street Hull Railway
CA  San Francisco  Sutter Street Railway
CA   San Francisco  California Street Cable Railway
CA   San Francisco  Geary Street Park and Ocean Railway
CA   San Francisco  Presidio and Ferries Railway
CA   San Francisco  Market Street Cable Railway
CA   San Francisco  Ferries and House Street Railway
CA   San Francisco  Omnibus Railroad and Cable Company
CO   Denver Denver Tramway Company
CO   Denver  Denver City Cable Company
DC Washington Washington and Georgetown Railroad
DC  Washington  Columbia Railway
IA Sioux City Sioux City Cable Railway
IL Chicago Chicago City Railway
IL  Chicago  Chicago West Division Railway
IL  Chicago  North Chicago Street Railroad
IL  Chicago  West Chicago Street Railroad
MD Baltimore Baltimore Traction Company
MD  Baltimore  Baltimore City Passenger Railway
MI Grand Rapids Valley City Street and Cable Railway
MO Kansas City Kansas City Cable Railway
MO  Kansas City  Metropolitan Street Railway
MO  Kansas City  Grand Avenue Railway
MO  Kansas City  Inter-State Consolidated Rapid Transit Company
MO  Kansas City  Peoples' Cable Railway
MO  Kansas City  Union Cable Railway
MO   St Louis St Louis Cable & Western Railway
MO   St Louis  Citizens Railway
MO   St Louis  Missouri Railroad
MO   St Louis  Peoples' Railway
MO   St Louis  St Louis Railroad
MN St Paul St Paul City Railway
MT Butte Butte City Street Railroad
NE Omaha Cable Tramway Company of Omaha
NJ Hoboken North Hudson County Railway
NJ Newark Essex Passenger Railway/Newark and Irvington Street Railway
NY Binghamton Washington Street & State Asylum Railroad
NY New York City - Brooklyn Brooklyn Cable Company
NY  New York City - Brooklyn  Brooklyn Heights Railroad
NY  New York City - Manhattan West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway
NY  New York City - Manhattan  New York and Brooklyn Bridge Railway
NY  New York City - Manhattan  Third Avenue Railroad
NY  New York City - Manhattan  Metropolitan Street Railway
OH Cincinnati Mount Adams & Eden Park Railway
OH  Cincinnati  Vine Street Cable Railway
OH  Cincinnati  Mount Auburn Cable Railway
OH  Cleveland  Brooklyn Street Railroad/South Side Railway
OH  Cleveland Cleveland City Cable Railway
OR Portland Portland Cable Railway
PA Philadelphia Philadelphia Traction Company
PA Pittsburgh  Pittsburgh Traction Company
PA  Pittsburgh  Citizens Traction Company
PA  Pittsburgh  Central Traction Company
RI Providence Providence Cable Tramway
WA Seattle Seattle City Railway
WA  Seattle  Front Street Cable Railway
WA  Seattle  Union Trunk Line
WA  Seattle  West Seattle Cable Railway
WA  Seattle  Madison Street Cable Railway
WA  Spokane Spokane Cable Railway
WA  Tacoma Tacoma Railway & Motor Company

Historical USGS Maps

Courtesy of the University of Texas Library, click here for 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! :-)

Please Note:  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 1830's!!!  

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 is here

Beware: If used as a source, ANYTHING from Wikipedia must be treated as being possibly being inaccurate, wrong, or not true.


web statistics

NEW 01/01/2014
Last Modified 13-Mar-2016