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The San Francisco cable car system is the world's last permanently operational manually-operated cable car system, and is an icon of San Francisco, California. The cable car system forms part of the intermodal urban transport network operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni as it is better known. Cable cars operate on two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf, and a third route along California Street. While the cable cars are used to a certain extent by commuters, their small service area and premium fares for single rides make them more of a tourist attraction.

The San Francisco cable cars are one of two moving National Historic Landmarks, along with Mystic Seaport Museum's steamship Sabino.

The very first successful cable-operated street railway was the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which opened on August 2, 1873. The promoter of the line was Andrew Smith Hallidie, and the engineer was William Eppelsheimer. The line involved the use of grip cars, which carried the grip that engaged with the cable, towing trailer cars. The design was the first to use grips.

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.

The current cable car network consists of three lines. Like other Muni routes, they have line numbers, but are generally referred to by name.

The Powell-Hyde (Line 60) line runs north and steeply uphill from a terminal at Powell and Market Streets, before crossing the California Street line at the crest of the hill. Downhill from this crest it turns left and uphill again along Jackson Street (as this is one-way, cable cars in the opposite direction use the parallel Washington Street), to a crest at Hyde Street. Here it turns right and steeply downhill along Hyde Street to the Hyde and Beach terminal, which is adjacent to the waterfront at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Man powered turntables turn the cable cars around at the two ends. This line is used greatly by tourists and often has long lines.
The Powell-Mason (Line 59) line shares the tracks of the Powell-Hyde line as far as Mason Street, where it crosses Washington and Jackson streets. Here the line turns right and downhill along Mason Street, briefly half left along Columbus Avenue, and then down Taylor Street to a terminal at Taylor and Bay. This terminus is near to, but two blocks back from, the waterfront at Fisherman's Wharf. There are man powered turntables at each end that turn the cars around. This line is also used greatly by tourists but some commuters as well.

The California Street (Line 61) line runs due west from a terminal at California and Market Streets, close to the junction of Market with the waterfront Embarcadero. The line once ran a much longer distance from Presidio Ave. to Market street but was reduced in the 50's. Ideas to restore the whole line have been made but not brought to action. The whole of the line lies on California Street, running at first uphill to the summit of Nob Hill, then more gently downhill to a terminus at Van Ness Avenue. This line is used to a greater extent by commuters, with majority of passengers on weekdays commuters.


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