Chalk it up to another — albeit temporary — casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. SF's beloved cable cars are going to remain offline indefinitely, likely until a vaccine puts a final end to the spread of the virus, and both operators and riders can be assured of safety.
"Of course, we want nothing more than to provide all of the services San Franciscans know and love, and have come to depend on," says SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato, speaking to the Examiner. But as of Wednesday Kato said that there is no current timetable for when the cable cars may return to service, because they are not seen as essential modes of transport.
Starting in August, as we learned last month, Muni's light-rail trains will come back into service with a modified route map and new transfer points for J, K, and L riders trying to get from their neighborhoods to downtown. But, Kato says, after rail service resumes, the SFMTA will be in a "holding pattern" pending larger global updates with the pandemic, and increased ridership demand. (Last week we learned that present budget projections likely mean that dozens of Muni bus lines may be cut as well.)
But buses and trains provide somewhat better distancing space for vehicle operators than the city's fleet of century-old cable cars.
"The cable cars require the operator to have the most direct interaction with passengers, and we have no way to protect our operators on cable cars," as SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin tells the Chronicle.
Thus, the city's iconic hill-climbers are going to stay garaged likely for a full year from when the system shut down in March. And it will be the first time since 1982 that the cable cars have spent such an extended period offline. At the time, as local transit historian Rich Laubscher explains to the Examiner, the cars had "completely fallen apart" and were removed from the streets for 18 months of refurbishing and repair.
The cable cars were also taken offline for ten days in September 2019 when one of the system's five car-sized, underground gearboxes had to be replaced.
The cable car system is entirely mechanical, operating via a huge underground motor at Washington and Mason streets that pulls a 12-mile loop of cable running beneath each of the three cable car track lines.
The first cable car line, established in 1873, was on Clay Street, and the system was designed to get San Franciscans over the city's hills — and save the poor horses that were pulling streetcars at the time some work.
Andrew Hallidie is credited with the design of the first streetcar, the Clay Street Hill Railway — and by his own account he was inspired after witnessing horses get dragged and injured trying to pull a full streetcar up the Jackson Street hill between Kearny and Stockton Streets. Hallidie Plaza at Powell Street is named for him, as is the beautiful Hallidie Building on Sutter Street.
As the Examiner notes, the cable cars went from being a functional mode of transportation to a tourist attraction around World War II, when thousands of sailors passed through the city on their way to and from the Pacific theater of the war. And like contemporary San Franciscans continue to do, residents fought back against a city effort to replace the cable car lines with buses in the 1940s — a fight that continued until the preservation of the last three cable car lines was written into the City Charter in 1971.
As of two years ago, the cable cars were picking up around 17,000 riders per day, most of them tourists — although there's no better way for downtown office workers near California Street to get home to upper Polk Street and Russian Hill.
During their hiatus, at least, the cars are all getting fresh paint jobs and getting all their parts oiled up.
Laubscher tells the Examiner that they will surely look "fabulous" when they're returned to service next year, or whenever the SFMTA decides it's safe.