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Today's Cable Car System—
Andrew Smith Hallidie's Legacy

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When Today's System Began: The date was Sunday morning December 22, 1957. The start occurred when California Street cable car No. 51. coasted onto Washington Street from the Washington-Mason cable car barn. When No. 51 entered service, the current three-line (California, Powell-Mason, and Powell-Hyde), 5.09 mile (one way mileage) cable car system became a reality.

Photo: Today's system began when the California Street line began operating from the Washington-Mason car barn. Cal car No. 57 is pulling into the barn from Jackson Street after a day of service.

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Photo: A Powell St. car is shown at the Market St. turntable in August 1947.

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Muni Runs Cable Cars: Although Muni started transit operations in 1912, the railway did not get into the cable car business until September 1944 seventy-one years after Andrew Smith Hallidie had successfully tested the world's first cable car. Muni’s cable car operation began when the City and County of San Francisco took over the Market Street Railway and its two run-down Powell Street cable lines.

This acquisition left California Street Cable Railroad Company (Cal Cable) as the City's last privately owned transit system. The Cal Cable and its three lines (California Street; O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde; and the Jones Street Shuttle) were shut down in July 31, 1951, after Lloyd's of London canceled its liability insurance. Bankruptcy followed on August 13. Muni took over and reopened the three Cal Cable lines in January 1952

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Photo: In August 1947, a Jones St. Shuttle car waits for transferring passengers as an O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde car turns onto O'Farrell St.

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Photo above: It is 11:00 pm February 6, 1954 and the Jones Street shuttle is about to make its "last run."

Cutting Losses: Soon Muni discovered that the Cal Cable lines were even bigger money losers than the Powell Street cable lines. During 1954, to control the losses, Muni cut the California Street line in half, ending now at Van Ness Avenue; and the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line and its Jones Street Shuttle were eliminated. In 1947 citizens had voted to "Save the Cable Cars." However, the former Cal Cable lines were not protected since they were in private ownership at the time of the election.

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Voters Create Today's System: San Francisco voters settled the on going cable car controversy in the June 1954 election. Proposition "J," which would have restored full service on all five cable lines, was defeated nearly 5-3. On the same ballot, a rival cable car Proposition "E" carried the day by a narrow margin of less than 12,000 votes. As a result, the Powell Street system and the one remaining segment of the former Cal Cable were consolidated into one system.

Photos: The passage, in 1954, of ballot Proposition "E" meant the end of the Washington Jackson cable line. Most of this line was replaced by the new Powell-Hyde line in 1957.

Above are two modern day maps: Cable Car Track (1) and Cable Pathways (2).  To see a larger, more detailed map click your mouse on either map.

The New System: By December 1957, the "New Lines" were up and running. The Powell-Mason line was unchanged. The Powell-Washington-Jackson line was cut back to Hyde Street and rerouted over the former Hyde Street leg of the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line to Aquatic Park creating the new Powell-Hyde line. This required the installation of a new turntable at Hyde and Beach Streets, so the single-ended Powell Street cars could turn around. All operation on the Cal Cable lines had been with double-ended cars. In addition, Muni laid a new underground cable from the Washington and Mason power house to California Street, thus rendering unnecessary the old power house of the Cal Cable power house at California Street and Hyde. California cars now run from the Washington-Mason car barn.
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Near Collapse: As time progressed, the mechanical condition of the system was becoming deplorable. Many years of neglect had accumulated. The cars and power house were far from reliable and perhaps bordering on the unsafe. The system was bordering on collapse. For the system to continue to operate, it would be necessary to renew the fixed plant, track, pulleys, winding machinery, power house, and the cars themselves. The entire cable car system was to be shut down for a major overhaul. September 21, 1982, was the last day of cable car service
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Photo: The construction for the rehabilitation program is very much in evidence in this August 1983 photo at Powell and Market.

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Photos above (Left): By mid-June 1983, only the chimney and exterior walls remained, as the carbarn was almost totally rebuilt during the 1982-84 rehabilitation program; (Center) Over a year into the reconstruction, in November 1983, work is being done on the barn and the underground sheave room beneath Washington and Mason Sts.; (Right) This photo shows the construction in 1983 to enclose the formerly open car-storage area. 

Building Anew: A combined effort of the public and private sector resulted in the system being entirely rebuilt. Many operating improvements were made. Rail became uniform throughout the system, and radiuses became more comfortable. The power plant, car barn and Museum were rebuilt from the ground up. However, the cars themselves were only cosmetically upgraded for the most part. Muni replaced the familiar cream and green paint scheme of the Powell Street cars, except car No. 3, with a paint scheme of maroon and cream reminiscent of the original Powell Street Railway of 1888.

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"They're Back": On June 21, 1984, after celebrations earlier that month for the return of California Street and Powell-Hyde cable cars, there were festivities celebrating the return of full cable car service. These began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Union Square, followed by a parade of cable cars up Powell Street which was led by a U.S. Marine band. San Franciscan again could climb "halfway to the stars."

Photo left: Part of the enthusiastic crowd greeting the official return of cable cars, June 21, 1984

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Lots of Riders: Ridership over the years has been increasing. Nearly ten million passengers are carried annually with 2.7 million revenue hours and 23.4 million revenue miles operated annually. The cable cars are solid revenue generators used both by San Francisco residents and by visitors to the City. The California line has a significant commuter business.

Photo: Powell-Hyde car No. 16 with a typical full load is climbing up the 21% Hyde Street hill.

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On the Street: The California line runs as frequently as every five minutes. Each of the two Powell Street lines run typically on a eight minute headway creating a combined frequency on Powell Street of four minutes. Because of the operating requirement that cable cars on hills must be spaced for safety reasons at least a city-block apart, given Powell Street traffic congestion four minutes is the minimum headway Powell cars can be run.

Photo: Heavily traveled cable cars have a scheduled three minute headway on Powell Street.

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Building New Cable Cars: When a cable car is too worn to be operated it is replaced with a brand-new one. Cable cars are not an "off-the-shelf" item. Muni has constructed its own state-of-the-art cable car carpentry shop. The Railway also produces all the required metal work, including the trucks. Every component in a new cable car is produced by Muni or under direct contract.

Eight single-ended Powell and two double-ended California cars have been built under this continuing program. The newest car, California car No. 59, entered service July 31, 1998, as part of the Museum co-sponsored celebration of 125 years of San Francisco cable cars. 


Number of Vehicles
Number of Lines
Round-Trip Route Miles
Annual Vehicle Revenue Miles
Annual Vehicle Revenue Hours

Lines and Round-Trip Mileage: Powell-Mason - 3.1; Powell-Hyde - 4.2; California Street - 2.9

Maximum Equipment Demand:


8 AM
5 PM
9 PM

Sat. and Sun

8 AM
5 PM
9 PM

Boardings - Fiscal Year 2000-2001:

Average Weekday
Average Saturday
Average Sunday
Annual Total

Track & Cable:

  • 3' 6" gauge single track - 8.8 miles.
  • Steepest grades - 21%, Hyde between Bay and Francisco; 18%, California between Grant Ave. and Stockton; 17%, Mason between Union and Green; 17%, Powell between Bush and Pine.
  • Cables - four cables moving at 9 1/2 mph, each powered by a 510 hp electric motor in the cable car barn, using a total of 3.7 million kwh per year.
  • Cable diameter - 1 1/4".
  • Cable length: Powell - 9,300 ft.; Mason - 10,300 ft.; Hyde - 16,000 ft.; California - 21,700; Total - 57,300 ft.

The Car Barn:

Washington & Mason Sts. (1201 Mason St.) Originally built in 1887 for the Ferries & Cliff House Rwy., rebuilt after the April 1906 earthquake and fire, and again rebuilt in 1982-84. Facility square footage: 84,741 sq. ft.

The Vehicles:

27' 6"
10' 4 3/4"
30' 3"
10' 2"

* cap. - seated/total optimum capacity

SF Muni Communications Department
February 7, 2002

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