The San Francisco cable car system is the world's last operational manually operated cable car system in the world. An icon of San Francisco, California, the cable car system forms part of the urban transport network operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, or "Muni" as it is better known. Cable cars operate on three routes, two of which depart from downtown near Union Square and arrive in Fisherman's Wharf, and the third route is along along California Street. While the cable cars are used to a certain extent by commuters, their small service area and premium fares for single rides make them more of a tourist attraction. They are among the most significant tourist sites in the city, along with Alcatraz Island and Fisherman's Wharf.
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 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 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 exactly how involved Hallidie was in the inception of the line, and to the exact date it first ran.
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" or operator and a 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 and the car has a small platform at the rear. 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. These cars must be rotated to reverse direction at each end of the line, an operation performed on the turntables situated at both ends of the lines. Most of these cars were built or rebuilt in the 1990s at Muni's Woods Carpentry Division.
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. These do not need to be rotated to change direction so this line has no turntables. Some of these cars are genuine O'Farrell, Jones, and Hyde Street cable cars, while some of these cable cars were built in 1998 at Muni's Woods Division/Woods Carpentry Division.
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 1.25 inches (3.175 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. Each cable has six steel strands, with each strand containing 19 wires, wrapped around a sisal rope core (to allow easier gripping). The cables are coated with a tar-like material which serves as a sacrificial lubricant (much like a pencil eraser erodes away rather than the paper).
The driver of a cable cars is known as the "gripman" or grip person. This is a highly skilled job, requiring the gripman to smoothly operate the grip lever to grip and release the cable, release the grip at certain points to coast the vehicle over crossing cables or places where the cable does not follow the tracks, and to anticipate well in advance possible collisions with other traffic that may not understand the limitations of a cable car. Being a gripman requires great upper body strength needed for the grip and brakes, as well as good hand-eye coordination and balance. Only a portion of the people who attempt the training course actually pass (about 30%)
As of August 2011, there have been two grip women, Fannie Mae Barnes, who served from 1998 to 2002, and Willa Johnson, who became a grip person in April 2010.
Besides the gripman, each cable car carries a conductor whose job is to collect fares, manage the boarding and exiting of passengers, and control the rear wheel brakes when descending hills. With the common practice of carrying standing passengers on the running boards of cable cars, passenger management is an extremely important task on the cable cars.