This week, when San Francisco city leaders set the long-awaited timetable for the return of its iconic cable cars following a fifteen month pandemic break, no one was more excited than the crews who run the 15,000 pound wooden ambassadors.
"I can’t wait," said operator and trainer Dwayne Norfleet after a training run last week. "I wish it was yesterday."
Mayor London Breed announced cable car service would resume in August with free runs for the public as the system knocks off its cobwebs, with full fare service beginning in September.
The absence of the cars during the pandemic seemed to characterize the city's emptiness with the silent tracks serving as a reminder that all was not normal.
"Been a lonely fifteen months here," said Cable Car Transit Shop Supervisor Arne Hansen as he sat in the cable car barn, surrounded by its entire fleet of cars. "I don’t have the same joy coming to work, because there’s so many people that are dying to ride these and we’re just waiting for the right time."
The city promptly shut down cable car service along with much of its public transportation in March 2020 as the pandemic began to surge across the U.S. For the cable cars, it became the longest period without service since the 1980s when the entire track system was upgraded.
During the shutdown, many of the cable car division's mechanics and operators pivoted to other duties such as manning vaccination centers, serving as street corner ambassadors and even driving busses. Now that the system has a target date for relaunch, SFMTA has to replace and train new operators and mechanics lost to attrition during the shutdown.
"I have a lot of new bodies and they have to be trained on how to work on a cable car," Hansen said, "because no one in the world knows how to work on a cable car until they’re trained."
Hansen said despite everything, the city's fleet of cable cars has been maintained to the point most cars would be ready to hit the slot any time. But it will take time to get all the kinks out of the track system which includes signals and 2400 underground pulleys that need to be individually inspected.
"We just want to make sure it’s safe for everybody," said Wesley Valaris, Senior Operations Manager for the cable car division, "and we don’t have any issues so we have to prepare for it."
In normal times, the cable car barn at Washington and Mason Streets is alive with the din of daily operations; twenty-seven cars cycling in and out across the turntable, with fifty-four operators rolling through their shifts. Hansen said the last fifteen months of silence has been difficult. He's missed the sight of the cars, the tourists and the camaraderie of his co-workers. He said the only ones happy to have the entire fleet in-house have been the pigeons. As a result, all the cars have been "pigeon-proofed" with plastic sheets.
"Because the cars are here all the time," Hansen said of the pigeons, "they have a new home."
During the recent months of the shutdown, crews have increasingly been making test runs with a single car to train new drivers. The runs are greeted with surprise and excitement by onlookers startled to see the cars in service.
"People see us on the street and they’re waving and clapping," Valaris said.
Norfleet said the number one question he's asked while operating the cars is when is the system coming back? Before the mayor's announcement he didn't have a definitive answer. Now he'll point to August.
"It’s such a fabric of the part of the neighborhoods that we service here," Norfleet said, "and I think they miss it."
Hansen said he's close to retirement but is holding out for the re-opening of the cable car system which he expects will require a celebration. Fifteen lonely months ago, it was his job to shut the service down.
"When we shut this place down on March 16 of 2020, we just turned the switch off," Hansen said. "I have a feeling one day they’re going to turn that switch back on and I’m going to be ready."