The line started regular service on September 1, 1873, and it was such a success that it became the model for other cable car transit systems in San Francisco and elsewhere. It was a financial success, and Hallidie's patents were enforced on other cable car promoters, making him a rich man.
Accounts differ as to exactly how involved Hallidie was in the inception of the line, and to the exact date it first ran. See the article Clay Street Hill Railroad for more information on this subject.
In 1878 Leland Stanford opened his California Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable). This company's first line was on California Street and is the oldest cable car line still in operation. In 1880, the Geary Street, Park & Ocean Railway began operation. The Presidio & Ferries Railway followed two years later, and was the first cable company to include curves on its routes. The curves were let-go curves, where the car drops the cable and coasts around the curve on its own momentum.
In 1883 the Market Street Cable Railway opened its first line. This company was controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad and was to grow to become San Francisco's largest cable car operator. At its peak, it operated five lines all of which converged into Market Street to a common terminus at the Ferry Building; during rush hours a cable car left that terminus every 15 seconds.
In 1888, the Ferries and Cliff House Railway opened its initial two-line system. The Powell-Mason line is still operated on exactly the same route today; their other route was the Washington-Jackson line, stretches of which are used by today's Powell-Hyde line. The Ferries & Cliff House Railway was also responsible for the building of a carbarn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason, and this site is still in use today. In the same year, it also purchased the original Clay Street Hill Railway, which it incorporated into a new Sacramento-Clay line in 1892.
In 1889, the Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company became the last new cable car operator in San Francisco. The following year the California Street Cable Railroad opened two new lines, these being the last entirely new cable car lines built in the city. One of them was the O'Farrell, Jones and Hyde line, the Hyde section of which still remains in operation as part of today's Powell-Hyde line.
By the beginning of 1906, many of San Francisco's remaining cable cars were under the control of the United Railroads company (URR), although Cal Cable and the Geary Street Company remained independent. URR was pressing to convert many of its cable lines to overhead electric traction, but this was being resisted by opponents who objected to what they saw as ugly overhead lines on the major thoroughfares of the city center.
But at 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, those objections were swept away as the great San Francisco earthquake struck. The quake and resulting fire destroyed the power houses and car barns of both the Cal Cable and the URR's Powell Street lines, together with the 117 cable cars stored within them. The subsequent race to rebuild the city allowed the URR to replace most of its cable car lines with electric streetcar lines. At the same time the independent Geary Street line was replaced by a municipally owned electric streetcar line, the first line of the San Francisco Municipal Railway.
By 1912, only eight cable car lines remained, all with steep gradients impassable to electric streetcars. In the 1920s and 1930s these lines came under pressure from the much improved buses of the era, which could now climb steeper hills than the electric streetcar. By 1944, the only cable cars remaining were the two Powell Street lines -- by then in municipal ownership, as part of SF Municipal Railway (Muni) -- and the three lines owned by the still-independent Cal Cable.
In 1951, the three Cal Cable lines were shut down when the company was unable to afford insurance. The city purchased and reopened the lines in 1952, but the amendment to the city charter did not protect them, and the city proceeded with plans to replace them with buses. Again Klussmann came to the rescue, but with less success this time. The result was a compromise: a protected system made up of the California Street line from Cal Cable, the Powell-Mason line already in municipal ownership, and a third hybrid line formed by grafting the Hyde Street section of Cal Cable's O'Farrell, Jones & Hyde line onto a truncated Powell-Washington-Jackson line (now known as the Powell-Hyde line).
This solution required some rebuilding to convert the Hyde Street trackage and terminus to operation by the single-ended cars of the Powell line, and also to allow the whole system to be operated from a single car barn and power house. But much of the infrastructure remained unchanged from the time of the earthquake.
By 1979 the cable car system had become unsafe, and it needed to be closed for 7 months for urgently-needed repairs. A subsequent engineering evaluation concluded that it needed comprehensive rebuilding at a cost of $60 million.
Mayor Dianne Feinstein took charge of the effort, and helped win federal funding for the bulk of the rebuilding job. In 1982 the cable car system was closed again for a complete rebuild. This involved the complete replacement of 69 city blocks' worth of tracks and cable channels, the demolition and rebuilding of the car barn and powerhouse, new propulsion equipment, and the repair or rebuild of 37 cable cars.
Since 1984, Muni has continued to upgrade the system. Work has included rebuilding of another historical car, the building of 9 brand new replacement cars, the building of a new terminal and turntable at the Hyde and Beach terminus, and a new turntable at the Powell and Market terminus.
The cable car system is principally used by tourists rather than commuters. The system serves an area of the city that is already served by a large number of buses and trolleybuses. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines both serve only residential and tourist/shopping districts (Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill, Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf), with the "downtown" end of both lines a substantial distance from the Financial District. The California Street Line is used more by commuters, due to its terminus in the Financial District.
In mid-April 2007, the San Francisco auditor's office reported that the city was not receiving the expected revenue from cable cars, with an estimated 40% of cable car riders riding for free. Muni's management disputed this figure, and pointed out that safe operation, rather than revenue collection, is the primary duty of conductors.
The current cable car network consists of three lines. Like other Muni routes, they have line numbers, but are generally referred to by name.
There is also a set of non-revenue tracks from the California Street line along Hyde Street to join the Powell-Hyde line at Hyde and Washington. This is used by cars from the California Street line to reach the car barn.
There are turntables at the three terminals served by the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines, and these two lines are served by a common fleet of single-ended cable cars. The California Street line, on the other hand, is served by a separate fleet of double-ended cars and its two terminals are simple single-track stubs.
The cable car system connects at both its terminals on Market Street with the F Market heritage streetcar line. The Taylor and Bay terminal, and the Hyde and Beach terminal, are both short walks from the F Market line.
As of 2007, riding a cable car costs $5 for a single ride, except for seniors riding before 7am or after 9pm making it $1. Cable car rides are included in monthly Muni passes, as well as 1-day, 3-day, 7-day passes, and the CityPass program.
As previously mentioned, there are two fleets of cable cars in San Francisco:
Both types of car ride on a pair of four-wheel trucks. The term California Street car, as in a car running on the California Street line, should not be confused with the term California Car. The latter term applies to all the cable cars currently operating in San Francisco, and is a historical term distinguishing this style of car from an earlier style where the open grip section and the enclosed section were separate four-wheel cars (known as the grip car and trailer).
There are 28 single ended cars in operation on the Powell lines and 11 double ended cars in operation on the California Street line. The cable cars are occasionally replaced with new or restored cars, with the old cars being moved to storage for later restoration or to the train museum in Rio Vista. There are 2 cable cars in storage in the cable car museum / power house inside the garage, car numbers 19 and 42 which were used on the Clay Street and old O'farrell and Jones Street lines.
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 inch (2.5 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.
The driver of a cable car is known as the gripman. 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 in order 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. Only a portion of the people who attempt the training course actually pass (about 30%). As of December 2005, there has only been one grip woman, Fannie Mae Barnes, hired on January 15, 1998.
Being a gripman requires great upper body strength needed for the grip and brakes, as well as good hand-eye co-ordination and balance.
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 going downhill. With the common practice of carrying standing passengers on the running boards of cable cars, passenger management is an important task.
Some crew members are locally well-known personalities.
On the second or third Thursday each July, a cable car bell ringing contest is held in Union Square between cable car crews, following a preliminary round held during the second to last or the last week of June. The preliminary round determines which contestants go on to the finals in Union Square, by a process of points awarded by a panel of judges.
In 2007, three people made it to the finals, held on Thursday July 12th: Herb Anderson (gripman); Frank Ware, who has won the bell ringing contest more than five times; and Keven Davis.