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Release date: 4/19/10

*** Press Release ***

On April 12, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which oversees all ground transportation in San Francisco, certified a new operator for its legendary cable car fleet, and in doing so, sent the previously accepted term of “gripman” back into the history books.  

With her certification as a grip person last Monday, Willa Johnson became only the second woman in the rail line’s 137-year history to helm the iconic symbol of San Francisco transportation.  Johnson’s predecessor, Fannie Barnes, retired from active cable car duty in 2002. 

“San Francisco’s transit system and its operators are as diverse as the City,” said Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., SFMTA Executive Director/CEO. “I am proud to have Ms. Johnson as an addition to our cable car team and know that she will carry forth Fannie Barnes’ legacy in the tradition of all our cable car grip persons, as an ambassador for the City.”

Johnson, Local 250-A Secretary for the Cable Car Division and cable car conductor since 2008, felt the job switch from conductor to grip person was necessary to understand the needs of her fellow union members. “I didn’t feel I could represent them effectively until I understood exactly what it is that grip persons do.” Conductors are usually based at the rear of the cable car. Grip persons are located in the front of the car and are responsible for operating the various hand and foot controls that propel and stop the 15,500 pound vehicles.

There was another reason Johnson wanted to move up front. “I like a good challenge,” she said, flashing a devilish grin.

Challenging it was. The affable Johnson failed in her first attempt—as do approximately 80 percent of all applicants who take the month-long training course.  Demanding and unforgiving, gripping a cable car requires jet fighter pilot-type skills: arm, hand and upper body strength, mental and physical coordination and the confidence and determination of a bull rider. The majority of those who fail in their first attempt do not return for a second. Johnson did. Though only of average stature, she credits regular workouts for building the strength required for the job.

In a historic meeting that took place this past Wednesday, Johnson received a surprise visit from Barnes, who retired from the Agency in 2007.  Barnes presented Johnson with a custom-made set of pink, leather grip covers with her successor’s name emblazoned on them. Barnes told Johnson she was handing over the torch to her. Johnson accepted the gift graciously. “You’re the first,” she quipped, “but now I’m the only.”

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