Bells clang and San Franciscans cheer as cable cars roll again

George DeMerritt smiles proudly as he nearly bowls over a visitor with the loud clang of a gripman's bell at point-blank range. ''It's beautiful - there's nothing else like it. . . . When you hear that, you know it's a cable car coming ,'' he explains.

The unmistakable bells are drawing crowds again for the first time in nearly two years, as the renovated cable cars start their preopening runs on San Francisco streets before the official return of all lines and cars on June 21.

Helping to put San Francisco's charm back on track, Mr. DeMerritt, the carpentry shop supervisor in charge of renovation of the cable cars, has scrutinized every detail of the project - right down to the A-pitched bell rendered from a unique silicon-and-bronze alloy he concocted with the help of the Navy. (''It used to be tin, lead, and brass. It was adequate but not the quality sound we want, too flat,'' he explains.)

Mr. DeMerritt has worked with the cable cars for 39 years and even put off retirement so he could see the project to completion. He proudly shows off every detail of cars still being refinished at a stadium-sized warehouse near a deserted bayside dock.

Everything was custom made because ''these are the only cable cars around,'' he says.

There's the special color-scheme - maroon, blue, and white - the deep-flanged wheels to grip a taller rail, the wider bumpers to prevent running board passengers from being swept off by passing vehicles (''Hold On,'' advises permanent stenciling on the cable cars), the new batteries so that the cars will last all night, and the green and red Belgium glass in the roofs. Attention to this kind of detail on the ''remanufacture'' of the cars cost about $125,000 apiece, DeMerritt says.

Smitten by the appeal of the steel and oak hulks that look like overgrown children's toys, DeMerritt is not much different than the usual San Franciscan overflowing with facts about the cable cars. The cars, remnants of the fleet that made the transition between horse-drawn and motorized transportation in the 1870s, are their conversation pieces, objects of affection, and symbols of the city's all-important tourist business (12.5 million people ride them annually).

''We used to rebuild one car a year. At that rate it would have taken 44 years'' to complete the fleet, says Mr. DeMerritt. And that illustrates the magnitude of the cooperation on this civic project - a $58 million undertaking that had the cable-car fleet and 69 city blocks ripped apart and buttoned up again in just 20 months.

That kind of pace, spurred by plans for the Democratic Convention, is like a blink of the eye in the context of the time usually needed for typical civic improvements - especially here where development is so controversial that it's the ''only major city in the country without a major interstate going through or around it,'' says Fred Kreitzberg, whose engineering firm constructed the new track and supervised infrastructure work.

''I've never seen a project before that had such unanimous support, everyone was for it,'' he explains. The private sector alone raised $10 million for the project, while the rest came from federal and state transportation funds.

Even when dust and the sound of jackhammers filled the streets here, making already bad parking and traffic conditions worse, workmen were regularly cheered by cable car-loving residents from their windows or in passing cars, says Mr. Kreitzberg.

Local affection for the cable cars can be gauged by the fact that residents actually use them to get around - nine miles of track pass through Chinatown, over Nob Hill around Union Square and by Fisherman's Wharf - despite one of the nation's most efficient municipal bus systems servicing the same areas.

Residents are fond of noting that despite the anachronistic cable car system, known for its breakdowns and irregularity, it's still a certain way of getting over some of San Francisco's fierce hills (the Hyde Street Hill has a grade of 21 degrees).

By contrast, it's not uncommon for a bus driver on the Nob Hill route to ask passengers to get off and walk.

The cable cars may be rolling anachronisms, but after this project, boasts Mr. DeMerrit, they'll be rolling another hundred years. One has to ask where this year's new buses will be in 100 years.

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