Helping hand for San Francisco's tired cable cars

Planning to go to San Francisco some day and ride on one of those quaint little cable cars? Success to date of a ''Save the Cable Cars'' fund drive and the support of the US Department of Transportation (DOT) make it likely they'll still be running when you get here.

But if you want to make a down payment on that breathtaking ride up the precipitous San Francisco hills, a Save the Cable Cars spokesman says you can join thousands of private donors who are contributing to the plan to refurbish what's left of the system that was invented and begun here in 1873. There is a contingency you need to keep in mind, however. If you don't want to endure an unusually long wait, better come before October 1982. That is when the entire system will be shut down for two - possibly three - years for a complete rebuilding. At a cost of $58.6 million, the system - cars, track, the unseen but complex underground cable network, the powerhouse, and the ''drums'' that keep the cable moving continously - must be repaired or replaced. The DOT has put up three fiscal years. The Municipal Railway (Muni), which operates the three remaining cable car lines as part of its extensive bus, trolley, and light rail system, has to find the other $13.6 million - and $10 million of that is sought from private donors through Save the Cable Cars.

Thousands of private contributions, most of them modest, have come in from across the United States and from 23 foreign countries, says a fund drive official. A recent ''adopt a cable car'' drive aimed at organizations, firms, and individuals able to give a minimum of $100,000 helped swell the total collected to $5.6 million. Eighteen cars have been ''adopted'' so far, and there are 26 more available.When the first cable line was installed on Clay Street, the cars replaced horse-drawn vehicles, and they were much more efficient at transporting people up and down the steep hills. Later, motor buses and electric trolleys proved less costly and troublesome to operate and city officials came to regard the cable cars as a bothersome frill. Times, however, have changed again. Save the Cable Cars literature points out: ''The cable cars cost less per passenger mile to operate and generate a larger percentage of operating expenses from passenger fares than any other mode of transportation in the Muni system.

''Moreover, ''it is estimated that a permanent shutdown (of the three remaining cable lines) would result in an annual loss in excess of $30 million in tourist industry income and $7.5 million in convention trade.''

San Francisco, its once healthy shipping and warehousing industry almost entirely gone, is very dependent on its $1 billion-a-year tourist industry.

When the cable car lines were shut down from September 1979 until April 1980 for essential repairs, business at Fisherman's Wharf dropped by 30 percent, and it dropped by 10 percent at downtown stores near the end of the Powell Street cable lines.

The city has had as many as nine separate cable car lines operating at one time, but now is down to three. Only the Powell-Mason line, which runs between Fisherman's Wharf and the intersection of Powell and Market Streets downtown is an original route. The other line that terminates at Powell and Market begins on Hyde Street near Ghiradelli Square on the waterfront. It is most popular with tourists because as it rises toward Nob Hill, it affords a spectacular view of the receding bay. Both these lines take riders to Chinatown.The other remaining line runs from California and Market, near the Embarcadero, to Van Ness Avenue; it tops Nob Hill with the Mark Hopkins and Fairmont Hotels on either side. On a recent rainy day, this reporter watched as a crammed cable car struggled to reach the top of Nob Hill; the ''grip man'' apparently was unable to get a tight enough clamp on the moving cable to overcome the inertia of his load.

Gamely, he eased the car down, down, down to more level terrain - clanging his bell to the counterpoint of the horns of irritated motorists who had to get out of the way. Only two of the intrepid (or stubborn) passengers abandoned ship. Finally, a firmer clasp on the cable secured, the antique car resumed its dogged conquest of the formidable hill.It is such ''thrills'' as this that the refurbishment is meant to eliminate. San Francisco without cable cars? Why, that would be like . . . like London without bobbies!

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