Brand-new cable car will soon hit the streets

Cable car No. 15 is no off-the-shelf vehicle.

For more than five years, nearly 30 Municipal Transportation Agency crafts workers - carpenters, a patternmaker, metal workers, transit mechanics, welders and painters - labored on and off to build the cable car from scratch, working off blueprints more than a century old.

"It's a work of art," Christopher Hill, Muni's manager of cable car maintenance, said of the new 8-ton rolling monument.

Made of bronze, steel, red oak, white oak, knot-free fir, Alaskan yellow cedar, canvas and glass, No. 15 cost $823,000 to build. Just about the only materials not specially fabricated for the cable car were the lightbulbs, hinges, rope and screws.

No. 15 is the 12th cable car produced from the bottom up by Muni in the past two decades. It will be used on the Powell Street lines that run from Market Street downtown to Fisherman's Wharf.

The new cable cars ensure that the 136-year-old system - a designated National Historic Landmark and the only one remaining in the world that operates on public streets - will carry on. The average lifespan of a cable car is about 100 years.


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24 Responses:

  1. cattycritic says:

    Given how man millions of dollars AC Transit is spending to build 3 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and how long those would last, $823k spread over 100 years is pretty damned cheap. Cable cars have no emissions at all (except at the power plant).

    • jwz says:

      Well, they do poop sand!

      I think the current cable system is driven by electric motors, so any emissions are way upstream.

      • cattycritic says:

        Oh yeah, I forgot about that! Not exactly gaseous though :)

        "way upstream" = power plant - I meant like, at PG&E's power plants.

        Although based on your "previously" post it seems everybody thinks the cable cars suck for reliability and are not cost effective overall. I wonder if cable car cost comparisons are up to date, and whether they take SF tourist dollars into account. A short search on Google and a scan of the Wikipedia entry don't have much to say about operating costs.

        • jwz says:

          The room that the motors that drive the cables sit in is also called a "power plant". I thought that was the one you meant.

        • pdx6 says:

          Muni's electric fleet has Zero Emissions, including the massive GE turbines in the cable car barn. Power comes from the Hetch Hetchy Dam, which also provides power to SF's city government offices.

          The Cable Car lines are Muni's only profitable line. Indeed, that part of the system is 100% self-funded and doesn't use any tax dollars [citation needed, but you can look at the SFMTA budget report for the numbers].

      • 205guy says:

        When you mentioned upstream, it made me wonder if Muni got their power from Hetch Hetchy. Also does anyone know if the downhill car clamp onto the cables to put their potential energy back in the system?

    • strspn says:

      I used to think hydrogen fuel cells were awesome, but now I think they're just another way for oil companies to delay the introduction of plug-in hybrids.

      • elusis says:

        And thank goodness - I needed to find an outlet on the ground floor of my apartment building the other day so the nice Vietnamese guys could replace my car window for the third time in two years ("secure garage" my ass), and we had to wake up the building manager, then run three different industrial-length power cords just to get some juice to the shop vac!

        Plug-ins are going to be all but inaccessible to apartment/condo dwellers without some infrastructure changes that I don't see property owners being willing to make.

  2. First thought: the steampunks will be all over this...

    I wonder whether they're still using purely Victorian designs and techniques to build the cable cars, or whether beneath the authentically historical veneer, there are frames of lightweight composites, cables of carbon nanotubes and designs stress-tested on supercomputers.

    • jwz says:

      Whereas my first thought is that not only didn't you read the article, you didn't even read the part I quoted!

      • tedlick says:

        My first thought was "$823,000? How much more would it have cost to have built a 2nd one simultaneously, to save the expense of gearing up all these custom fabricators/craftsmen again in a few years?"

        • gytterberg says:

          It sounds like these custom fabricators and craftsmen are for the most part permanently employed in cable car maintenance, so there isn't that much tooling up to do.

          It's no space shuttle - they've probably got a pretty simple workshop. Most of that $823,000 was probably labor and materials.

          • tedlick says:

            True-- doing the math, 12 cars built in 20 years, with each one taking over 5 years, means they're already doing some work simultaneously.

            (I did say it was my first thought, not a well considered thought...)

      • gytterberg says:

        My first thought was "I see the word 'steampunk' and therefore decline to read this comment."

  3. evan says:

    I can't help but wonder how much of that money could be spent on, y'know, making the J show up on time. Or making the public transit system arrival data available to the public.

    • strspn says:

      If you manage to force compliance to a schedule in busy chaotic traffic like SF's, I'm pretty sure you get longer stops resulting in slower traffic, a harder time for bikes, extra emissions, and some other disadvantages relative than if you just tell the drivers to go with the flow. One less thing for drivers to worry about is safer, too.

      We need more signs at stations saying when the next route is expected (a la BART, which seems to do everything right except building more track) and fewer paper pamphlet lies.

      Mussolini made the trains... oh never mind, that probably falls well within Godwin's.

    • pdx6 says:

      Cable Car service is mandated by city charter, so if there aren't enough cars to make the runs then someone is in deep shit. Tourists love them, businesses love them, so following the money trail, the answer is NO, none of that money could have been used to make the J run on time. I don't think any reasonable amount of money would!

      July 1 is a massive service cut for all of Muni (except the lucrative cable cars). I hope you have your bike tuned up.

  4. xthread says:

    So, I read the first paragraph... Good lord they use a lot of people to do that
    Then I read the next couple paragraphs... $823,000?! Yipe!
    Then I read the last sentence... 100 years?! Dayam, those are inexpensive!

    Of course, the thing of it is, I have no intuitive notion of the cost of, say, your average light rail car, so I don't actually have any frame of reference for that $823k number beyond there's a bunch of zeroes.

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