Riders enjoyed a trip on a Powell Street cable car when service returned on Monday. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>
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Riders enjoyed a trip on a Powell Street cable car when service returned on Monday. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

San Francisco’s cable cars return after 16-month absence

San Francisco’s cable cars are back, and they’re free for passengers to ride for the month of August.

The familiar rumble of the vintage vehicles returned to city streets Monday morning as officials celebrated the reopening of one of San Francisco’s most storied icons.

Cable cars were suspended in March 2020 at the start of the shelter-in-place order. The last 16 months mark the longest time period they’ve been off the road since 1982 when then-mayor Dianne Feinstein oversaw an 18-month system rebuild.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is running mock service along the Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California lines between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. for the duration of August. That means passengers can expect irregular schedules, different-than-usual stops and potentially longer lines.

It also means they can ride for free if they’re willing to provide feedback on the experience.

Considered by many to represent the soul of The City, the cable cars were originally expected to be some of the last SFMTA routes to return to service as part of pandemic recovery.

Julie Kirschbaum, SFMTA director of transit, told the agency’s board of directors at a February meeting that it would be a “heavy lift” to bring the cable cars back. She cited steep operational costs, potential tradeoffs with less touristy routes and the need to rehire highly trained, specialized gripmen and conductors who had either left the workforce or been reassigned to emergency response work.

Just one month later, though, officials unveiled plans to return the Powell-Hyde line in early September with the remaining two lines following shortly thereafter.

When they do, a family of four would have to pay $64 for a round-trip to Fisherman’s Wharf from the turnaround at Powell and Market streets.

Dozens of people lined up to ride the first cable cars on Monday, a sign that many are eager to experience some of the magic of San Francisco even as the Delta variant continues to surge and word of a renewed citywide indoor mask mandate emerges.

Market Street Railway, a nonprofit that preserves local transit history, offered up a few tips for people who want to avoid long lines: ride early in the day; hop on the Powell cable car at an outer stop and ride toward downtown; or take the “very underrated” California line from Market Street over Nob Hill.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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