Two cable car lines shut down

Thousands inconvenienced by frayed-cable coincidence

Commuters and tourists were forced to change their itineraries Friday as two cable car lines closed in San Francisco due to mechanical problems.

The California Street and Mason Street cable car lines both came to a halt Friday morning when underground sensors meant to detect frayed cables were tripped within one half-hour of each other. The lines closed and were not expected to reopen until Saturday.

“To my knowledge, there has never been two lines down like this with strand alarms,” San Francisco Municipal Railway spokeswoman Maggie Lynch said. “We’ve had lines go down due to a motor problem or something else, but I’ve never seen two lines go out at the same time due to strand alarms.”

When underground sensors, which are placed throughout the cable car system, detect what might be a strand fraying from the cable, they automatically shut down the line, Lynch said. Cable cars operate through a connection to a constantly moving cable under the street. A grip on the car, controlled by a gripman, attaches or breaks free from the cable in order to control the car’s motion. Cars brake independently of the cable.

The danger in a strand coming loose is that it can pile behind the grip and prevent the car from breaking free of the cable.

“It could barrel through downtown and take out everything in its path,” a gripman at the turnaround at Taylor and Bay streets said.

Depending on the extent of the damage, Lynch said, frayed cables can be repaired with splicing, or they must be replaced. The cable on the California Street line will be repaired, Lynch said, while the Mason Street cable will be replaced.

An estimated 19,000 people ride the cable cars on a typical weekday. Many of those are tourists, but many also live and work in The City. Muni established shuttle buses to ferry passengers along the cable car lines, but many passengers opted to ride a working line.

“I’m just going to walk over and catch the other one,” said Tom Keinast, who was visiting from Dallas with friends. “It’s old. If it breaks down, we’ll just catch it at the other end,” he said.

But not all the passengers were as understanding.

“It screwed us up this morning because I had to take him to school and they go right by there,” said Robin Wilson, who lives near the turnaround with her 9-year-old son, Brandon. “It’s really inconvenient that they’re not working. What a pain.”

“We’re very happy about it,” joked Allan Pierce, who was visiting from Northern England with his wife, Carol, and his son and daughter-in-law. Pierce said the group was disappointed, but as they prepared to head to the working Hyde Street line he added, “They can’t help them breaking down. If it’s broken, it’s broken, isn’t it?”

Fare collector Yolanda Dyer said she had to turn people away all day.

“It hasn’t been too bad,” she said, adding that most people were polite and understanding.

amartin@examiner.com

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