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PUC's Inspection Role Questioned


The Public Utilities Commission, which has the job of ensuring the safety of Angels Flight, generally monitors large rail systems and subways, raising questions about whether the agency is well-suited to cope with a tiny, unusual railway more akin to an elevator than a train.

The PUC conducted regular safety checks of Angels Flight, and representatives of that agency said Thursday that they were unaware of any mechanical problems. But a PUC engineer helping investigate the tragedy suggested that her agency performed only perfunctory checks, relying instead principally on the daily inspections of the railway's operators.

"This property is very unique," said Audrey Ong, the PUC rail transportation engineer, based in Los Angeles. "We would have to hire an elevator inspector to do an inspection. We're not qualified.'

Responsibility for monitoring Angels Flight fell to the PUC because state law gives it oversight of "rail on fixed guideways," officials said.

But Ong said PUC inspectors mainly were responsible for ensuring that paperwork was in order. "We audit . . . records," she said. "We check to see if they fulfill their own maintenance schedule. We don't inspect the actual cars or cables."

Disagreement on PUC Capability

Ted Turpin, an accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation into the cause of the crash, agreed with Ong's assessment of the PUC's role.

"Their function as an oversight agency is to ensure that [Angels Flight operators] do what they say they're going to do," he said. "Their job is not to come down and measure a wheel, inspect a track."

Ong's San Francisco-based supervisor, Kenneth L. Koss, director of the PUC's rail safety and carriers division, acknowledged that Ong, a veteran employee, is "more on the ground floor" in terms of seeing what goes on than he is.

But he said he disagreed with her assessment that PUC engineers were not capable of monitoring the funicular, noting that, in addition to trains, they oversee safety for San Francisco's cable cars.

He also said PUC engineers have done more than look at paperwork. When Angels Flight was restored to service in 1996, he said, the engineers inspected the cars, cables, track and power supply and helped test the operation.

The state agency reinspected the railway, billed as the world's smallest, last July and revisited it in September and last month, he said. "I know we went out and looked at the system, rode the system," Koss said. "It wasn't just a paper transaction."

He added, however, that, "really what we're auditing is [the operator's] system safety plan and system safety activities. We don't necessarily look at every nut and bolt. . . . But I do know we visually inspected quite a bit of it"--an activity made feasible because of its short length.

Koss refused to release inspection records Thursday but said they would show that no mechanical flaws were turned up. He said his agency follows the same protocol it uses to satisfy the Federal Transit Administration in inspecting railways that depend on federal funds.

"This is such a surprise," he added. "It seemed in good order. If it wasn't, we'd certainly [have taken] some action."

The only actions taken as a result of the most recent inspections, he said, involved noting some deficiencies about record-keeping and frequency of inspections by the operators, the Angels Flight Foundation and its operations entity, Angels Flight Operating Co. LLC.

He said those groups have been cooperative in making changes, including more-intense monthly and semiannual inspections on top of daily visual checks.

Historic preservationist John H. Welborne, president of the foundation and a member of the board of the operating entity, said Thursday that the operators performed "very comprehensive" daily maintenance.

"The Flight was checked Thursday morning, the engineer did all the safety checks and everything was working fine . . . until the tragic accident," he said.

Welborne said a much more comprehensive monthly inspection was performed late last week. In addition, he said, outside vendors checked the cable periodically. That was last done early last year, according to Welborne.

The mayor's and city attorney's offices said Thursday that the city has no safety oversight responsibility for the system, although it was built under the authority of a city entity, the Community Redevelopment Agency, on city-owned land. They said the CRA entered into a 99-year lease with the nonprofit foundation specifying that the "tenant shall operate, maintain and repair Angels Flight . . . and shall keep it in good and safe condition. . . ."

The foundation, which helps raise funds to support the railway's operation, appears to have been struggling financially in recent years, records and interviews show.

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