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Repairing San Francisco's old cable cars

For 108 years, city life in San Francisco has had a distinctive ring. The cable cars -- with their bells clanging, brakes squealing, and underground cables groaning -- have wound their way up Nob Hill, through the fog , down to Fisherman's Wharf, and back up again.

Today, however, the aging system's squeaks and groans are outclamoring the crisp ringing of the cars' bells.

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The century-old cable-car network has never had a major tuneup, and it is too antiquated to adequately serve its 12 million annual passengers.

To put these national historic landmarks back on the right track, the City of San Francisco is actively renewing efforts to raise some $62 million to completely overhaul the system.

The current fund-raising proposal calls for the US Department of Transportation to supply 80 percent of the required capital, or $49 million -- the usual proportion allocated for mass-transit improvement projects. State and private matching funds would provide $3 million and $10 million, respectively, to account for the remaining 20 percent.

Government officials -- including San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and US Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California, as well as privately organized fund-raising committees -- are working hard to get the one-year campaign off to a strong start. The 18-scheduled to begin in October 1982. In addition, with federal spending reductions and federal budget cutbacks mandated by the Reagan administration, supporters of the rehabilitation effort hope to ensure federal appropriation of funds early in the administration. Virgil Caselli, president of the Committee to Save the Cable Cars, is optimistic that federal funding will be available.

Already the federal government has contributed $3 million to overhaul the only active cable-car system in the world. The Transportation Department is willing to provide an additional $6 million this years, according to Senator Hayakawa. And Mayor Feinstein is looking to the federal agency for a three-year , $40 million commitment.

The focal point of the campaign, however, is in San Francisco. "We've got an organized campaign structure that will really be getting off the ground in mid-May," Mr. Caselli said. "We've already collected $2 1/2 million," he added. Local corporations and foundations will be the target of the spring fund-raising effort.

Why does a 10-mile cable-car network need $62 million worth of repair? "The system needs to be totally rebuilt," said Walter Ware, superintendent of the Municipal Railways Cable Car Operations. "The big machinery that propels the cables will be replaced. The cable-car barn [where the engines and driving mechanisms for the system are located] will be gutted and its innards replaced." In addition, two new engines will be installed to help drive the cables, and some 10 miles of cable-car tracks throughout the San Francisco will be ripped out and replaced.

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The reconstruction work will not, however, drastically alter the operation of one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Since their first run down a San Francisco hill in 1873, the cable cars have operated according to the same fundamental procedure. Wrapped steel cables travel underground in an endless loop below the cable-car tracks and around a system of motor-driven pulleys and bright yellow wheels, 14 feet in diameter, located in the main cables -- one for each line through the city --with a pulley at the end of each line. Cable cars actually grip these moving cables with a pair of steel jaws known as "dies." Once locked on, the car is pulled up and down its track. To stop the cars, anyof four different brake systems may be utilized. The grip mechanism automatically trips approaching traffic lights so as to ensure right-of-way for the cable car.

Under the present system, one 750-horse-power engine drives all three cable-car lines. When one cable car on one line breaks down, all three lines have to be stopped. Plans call for each line to have its own engine, thus eliminating this problem.

The restoration project also may include installation of an additional pulley and cable system in the cable-car barn. "There's been talk of adding another cable-car line," said Robert Pottinger, a day dispatcher for the cable cars, "and the overhauling will give the barn that capability."

It is the existing cable network, however, that is so sorely in need of reconstruction. During the past few years, breakdowns and shutdowns, with only patchwork-type repairs, have characterized the cable-car operation. Despite assurances from Municipal Railway officials that the system is safe, local citizens have questioned its reliability.

With a two-year tuneup for a 108-year-old system, the world's only operating cable cars should be ready to roll for . . . at least another century.

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