Downtown Los Angeles' Angels Flight trolley ordered to stop operating due to safety concerns

Angels Flight rail car descends Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles
Angels Flight rail car descends Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles
Brian Watt/KPCC

What goes up did not come down for at least one rider of a storied Los Angeles trolley.

The California Public Utilities Commission ordered Angels Flight, a trolley with a short ride and a long history of problems, to shut down Thursday afternoon because of an unsafe deterioration of its steel wheels that requires repair.

Detroit resident Harry Dovletian, 65, is visiting Los Angeles for his daughter's graduation from UCLA and took the "bumpy ride" uphill on the trolley from his hotel before it was shut down at about 4:30 p.m.

When he returned to take it back down Bunker Hill, the trolley had been closed down. When asked how he felt about the dangerous ride he'd taken earlier in the day, Dovletian laughed and noted there were dangers about living in his hometown.

A written letter will be issued Friday to follow CPUC's verbal order, the result of a routine inspection Thursday.

Inspectors "found that the wheel flange, which holds the wheels of the cars on the rails, have deteriorated to the point of being unsafe," according to a statement from CPUC.

The railway's own mechanics and consultants were surprised to find that the railway's steel wheels were wearing down more quickly than expected and the wear "had accelerated in the last month to a point where replacement is required sooner than the normal time period expected for steel wheels," said Railway Foundation president John Welborne in a statement.

The wheels may take several weeks to replace, as "they are custom items, not available just off-the-shelf," said Welborne.

Over the last 15 months, the trolley has been operating sixteen hours a day, seven days a week to provide about 800,000 passenger trips, he said.

The Angels Flight is dubbed "the shortest railway in the world" and takes passengers for a 298-foot ride up or down a steep hill in the city's Bunker Hill area.

Riders have boarded orange and black wooden cars since 1901 to ride the funicular, which means its two passenger cars are connected by a cable and move up and down the tracks simultaneously.

When the railway opened, the ride cost a penny and took residents from the Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill to the shopping district at the bottom of the hill.

Over time, the area became a slum and was razed in the 1960s to make way for skyscrapers, hotels and apartment buildings. The railway was dismantled in 1969 and sat in a warehouse for decades until it was reassembled in 1996 a short distance from the original location.

But tragedy struck in February 2001 after a car rolled uncontrollably downhill and hit another car, killing an 83-year-old man and injuring seven others. The 25-cent rides were halted until March 2010 as a result.

An investigation faulted a modern gear that had replaced an original part, causing a cable that raised and lowered the car to come off its spool. The emergency brake was also broken.

It took years for the Angels Flight Foundation to raise the $3.5 million needed to repair and upgrade the railway to reopen it.

"Charging only a quarter is something we are not sure is going to be possible for too much longer," said Welborne.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.