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Cable Car Shutdown Update

Monday, September 13, 2021

Last Thursday at approximately 1:30 p.m., the fire suppression system in the electrical room at the Cable Car Barn at Mason and Washington streets discharged. This caused the electrical room to fill with fire retardant material resembling smoke, which prompted a response from SFFD as a safety precaution. Upon the discharge of the fire suppression system, other automated safety systems were activated resulting in a loss of electrical power to the entire facility, including the propulsion system for the cable cars.

As the cable cars only recently came back to full service on Sept. 4, we share the public’s disappointment to now be without these essentially San Francisco features on our streets. Our electrical, operations, safety and facilities teams are working hard to ensure that we do thorough inspections across related systems, rigorous testing and careful resumption of service to avoid further disruption. We are grateful for the quick response and support from SFFD. Since this incident we have also been working in close collaboration with PG&E to inspect our electrical systems and prepare to bring them back safely.

Last week’s discharge of the suppression system was due to the failure of an aged release valve which has been in service since the last cable car renovation in the 1980's. Regular inspections by outside fire safety experts of the fire suppression system have not shown any signs of defect, but the system is almost four decades old and is not considered current best practice. The wider loss of electric power at the facility was the outcome of the systems shutting down safely. Due to the age of related safety and electrical equipment, we are thoroughly inspecting this equipment for any resulting damage, stress or fatigue it may have undergone.

The fire suppression system did not sustain damage, but purchasing and retrieving necessary replacement parts for this aged system along with the inspections and testing once repairs have been made will take time. A 305-lb canister of the fire suppression system’s halon material will need to be assembled over the next week, and then delivered by truck from Ohio, followed by installation and testing. We are also researching possible alternatives to repair or replace the obsolete system in the near term. While we do not expect to have the cable cars return to service before the end of next week, we will continue to provide updates on our plans and schedule.

These are some of the many challenges that the SFMTA faces keeping the one of the oldest transportation systems operating in San Francisco.

The Cable Car system has not undergone a complete system renovation since the 1980s. More than a year ago, the SFMTA began planning for a complete system renovation, which would include modernization of the Cable Car Barn, including critical seismic upgrades, replacement of the Cable Car electrical system, propulsion and long-term system resilience. A complete system renovation today would cost approximately $625 million.

The project delivery of this program is designed around complete system renovation. The central project is the renovation of the Cable Car Barn, which requires a full upgrade of the existing 12KV electrical system, which triggered last week’s safe shutdown of the cable car electrical systems, plus structural and seismic upgrades.

The project would also seek to renovate the on-street infrastructure, including the tracks and turntables, as well as the continued rehabilitation of 27 Powell-style cable cars and 13 California-style cable cars.

A nationally recognized landmark, the Cable Car system is an iconic emblem of San Francisco beloved by locals and visitors alike. During the 1982 renovation of the Cable Car System, the federal government, noting the national significance of the system, provided 80% of the renovation costs through the Federal Department of Transportation over multiple years. In total, that federal contribution today would be $500 million, with the city, through the SFMTA, raising the funds necessary for the local match of $100 million. 

The renovation of this U.S. icon represents a project of national significance and an opportunity for innovation in transportation project delivery and historic preservation. The Cable Car System has not undergone a complete system renovation in nearly four decades. The time has come to build a program to ensure that cable cars are available into the next century.