Angels Flight deemed safe to ride (again)

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AP Photo/Gus Ruelas

Angels Flight, the landmark funicular railway in the Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles, resumed operation after a nine year absence. Photo taken on March 14, 2010.

After a shutdown of nearly a month, state regulators told L.A.'s City Council Tuesday the iconic Angels Flight trains are safe to ride.

The state inspectors and the City of L.A. take the safety of the century-old downtown rail line very seriously. A decade ago an 83-year-old man died and several other people were injured after a train’s safety mechanism failed and sent the train careening down the rail’s steep incline. The railway reopened last year after a nine-year closure prompted by the 2001 accident.

Last month, state regulators shut down Angels Flight after inspectors found that parts that hold the cars on the tracks had worn down so much that the train wasn’t safe to ride.

The funicular that takes riders up Bunker Hill for 25 cents reopened July 5 after the operator installed all new wheels made of a harder steel.

The movement of the two cars, Olivet and Sinai, through a transition two-thirds up the hill was not behaving as originally designed, Richard Clark, CPUC's director of Consumer Protection and Safety, told the council.

"It was quite bumpy and rough and the patterns of wear on the track structure and guard rails gave us great concern,'' he said.

"We're still trying to determine what the actual root cause of the problem is,'' Clark said, but added that the Angels Flight Railway has taken the appropriate steps to replace the wheels and monitor the railway, including instituting three maintenance audits per year beginning this fall.

Railway President John H. Welborne disputed the claim that the root cause is unknown.

"The root cause is friction. Wheels wear,'' he said. "There is always going to be friction when steel rubs on steel. The question is what is the appropriate amount of wear.''

Welborne said the railway, its transportation safety consultant Parsons Brinkerhoff and the CPUC have all come to an agreement that wheels should be replaced when the flange wears to seven-sixteenths of an inch. New wheels have flanges that are typically three-quarters of an inch.

Clark told the council that five of the eight wheels, which were last replaced in 1995, had not shown much sign of wear at all.

Angels Flight, billed as the "shortest railway in the world,'' carries passengers on one-minute trips up and down Bunker Hill.

Angels Flight was opened in 1901 to take passengers on one-minute trips up and down Bunker Hill, initially for a penny. It was dismantled and put into storage in 1969 because of the Bunker Hill urban renewal project. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1996, a half-block south of the original site. The railway now operates between 6:45 a.m. and 10 p.m.

This story incorporates information from KPCC wire services.

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