San Francisco's World Famous Cable Cars

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Richard Panse photo.

The cable cars were invented here in 1873, dominated the city’s transit scene for more than 30 years, were almost extinguished by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, soldiered on through two World Wars as a quaint relic (even then), survived an assassination attempt by misguided (or malicious) politicians in the late 1940s, were wounded in a follow-up assault in the 1950s, but survived it all to become a worldwide symbol of San Francisco.

Today, they are one of two National Historic Landmarks that move (New Orleans’ St. Charles streetcar line is the other), and both their continued operation and minimum level of service are locked into San Francisco’s City Charter. Their history is a fascinating amalgam of technology, politics, and passion. Here, we concentrate on the basics of the current system.

Two types of cable cars

Today, there are two types of cable cars in regular service. Though they differ in appearance, their operation is almost identical (see ‘How they work’ below).

The California Street cable car line uses twelve larger, maroon cable cars which have an open seating section at each end and a closed section in the middle. These cars can be operated from either end, and turn around by means of a simple switch at the end of the line.

The two Powell Street lines (Powell-Hyde & Powell-Mason) use smaller cable cars, operable from only one end. They thus require turntables to reverse direction at the ends of the line. There are 28 Powell cars kept on the roster at any given time. Several sport historic liveries recapturing the look of the cars at various points in the twelve-decade history of the service.

Additionally, there are unique cable cars from now-vanished lines which Market Street Railway and the Cable Car Museum are working to return to service in the future.

How Cable Cars Work

Full cable car fleet roster