Monday, July 14, 2008

Cable Car Accident

San Franciscans woke up to the news early this morning that one of their beloved cable cars had hurtled driverless down a hill injuring four people, some of whom had been thrown onto the road.

Three of the injured had been hospitalized. But so quick had NBC11 been to get to the scene at around midnight, they were able to broadcast an interview with one of the passengers. The man, standing by the road, told how he had clung on for dear life.

Had he thought more quickly, he said, he would have jumped off before the car reached a reported speed of 55 mph. It came to stop at the bottom of the hill where the rails turn the corner to go up Powell Street heading downtown. Although the car jumped the rails, very fortunately it did not overturn.

According to NBC11 the car had stuck on the rails. The driver had jumped out to give it a push, but as it began to move, a glass door had closed and the driver was unable to get back in. The report added a comment from Muni, the transport organization that runs the cable cars, that drivers are not supposed to leave the cars. See NBC11's website for a video.

But the accident does not appear to have deterred visitors. Long queues have been curling round the start of the cable car run at Powell Street all day. Official statistics for 2006 show that the cars carried 7.5 million passengers.

I travelled on a car next to a friendly lady from Taiwan. She had not heard of the accident, and though sympathetic to the people who have been injured, was not fearful for her own safety.

Likewise, a family from Kansas who I spoke to at Powell Street. They were definitely looking forward to their ride on the cable car. They had not heard of the incident and when I told them, said that it did not put them off at all.

The accident happened at the junction of Powell Street and Washington Street, which is over the top of the hill from Union Square and several blocks down.

White chalk markings in the road show where the car came off the rails. One shopkeeper there said she had not heard of the accident. A man in another store had heard it on the news. He remembered the last serious accident with a car, coincidentally only a few blocks away at Mason, when a car had hit and killed an elderly female pedestrian in January 2006.

News had obviously got around a few people for there were small numbers of people milling with cameras. Two news vans were also parked there, including NBC11, preparing for the evening news bulletins.

A block up Washington is the Cable Car Museum which houses the cables that run the system. Outside the museum was a group of Muni drivers peering down the hill and who, by their hand gesticulations, were obviously discussing the incident.

According to the information in the museum, the city has 40 cable cars of which up to 26 are in operation at any one time. The cable cars move by gripping onto cables with machinery that keeps the cars running at 9.5 mph.

There are four cables that run in channels beneath the streets.

The cable cars opened on 1 September, 1873, having been originally pulled up and down the hills by horses.

They survived an attempt by the city's mayor in 1947 to have them replaced by diesel buses. The mayor was defeated in a public campaign led by the redoubtable Mrs Freda Klussmann of the San Francisco Federation of Arts.

She triumphantly formed the Citizens Committee to Save the Cable Cars and was honoured with a memorial arch at the centenary celebrations.

pics show accident spot with a cable car turning onto Washington Street by the San Francisco Cable Car Museum at Mason Street. For more pics click here

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