Riding the cable cars of San Francisco is a great experience.

These iconic cars are the last of their type in the world and who knows how much longer they’ll operate.

Of the 23 lines originally established in San Francisco, only three are left – mainly catering for tourists.


If you’ve ever wondered how they move, San Francisco’s cable cars don’t have any motor.

Cables run along a trench beneath the street and each cable car has at least one mechanical ‘grip’ which reaches down into the trench and grabs the cable like a huge pair of pliers.

This hauls the car along at a constant speed of about 9.5 miles an hour – and a little faster when going downhill.

Bells clanging

The cable cars are colourful and wonderful to watch in action – rattling up San Francisco’s legendary steep streets with bells ringing and the driver, or gripman, working the controls and calling out the names of impending stops.


We rode the Powell Street cable car to the end of the line, especially to see another highlight of the system – the turntables that swing the cable car around and allow it to return in the opposite direction.

As children, we remembered watching old steam trains turned on a similar system in rural Australia. So it was particularly nostalgic to watch the cable car rotated in the same way.

The cars are also a fantastic way of seeing the sights of downtown SanFrancisco.


Each cable car has outward facing seats flanking the gripman and a small platform at the rear. These provide an awesome view of the road ahead and behind, as well as the passing parade through the city.

The rest of each car is enclosed and, overall, 29 people are able to sit while about the same number can stand.

Established between 1873 and 1890, the San Francisco cable car system is the last manually-operated network of its type.

The three remaining cable car routes run from downtown San Francisco near Union Square to the Fisherman’s Wharf area and along California Street.

Each car is 27 feet 6 inches (8.4 m) long and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide and weighs 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg)

They are listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

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