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Restore Angels Flight, Again

June 05, 2002

It now seems abundantly clear that the rebuilt Angels Flight was poorly designed and that slipshod maintenance and operation of the 100-year-old funicular contributed to last year's fatal crash. But these multiple and inexcusable safety problems can be fixed. It would be a shame if the February 2001 accident scared local leaders away from once again restoring the Bunker Hill line.

The state Public Utility Commission's report on the crash, which killed tourist Leon Praport and injured seven other people, leaves little doubt as to what happened: A cable unraveled from one of the system's two drums; there were "critical errors" in the design of the drive system, including the use of gear systems that were "incompatible and subject to failure"; and track brakes and other safety features from the original design were never installed.

The result was a terrifying lunchtime accident in which one of the two cable cars hurtled down the steep track and crashed into its twin. Passengers inside one of the wooden cars tumbled about wildly while pedestrians at the top and bottom of the hill watched in horror.

The PUC, which oversees rail safety, blames the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which owned the line; the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, a fund-raising group; and Angels Flight Operating Co., the operating contractor.

Angels Flight first opened on New Year's Eve 1901. The orange and black cars ferried office workers and tourists up and down Bunker Hill until 1969, when the line closed as passenger traffic dropped off.

The 298-foot railroad--which once billed itself as "The Shortest Paying Railway in the World"--reopened in 1996 after a $4.1-million restoration and years of effort by preservationists.

Today, the two heavily damaged cable cars are back in cold storage. Not forever, we hope. The tiny rail line had an almost unblemished safety record before the crash. The mechanical and operational problems that caused it can be avoided if the line is rebuilt.

The PUC is revamping the way it certifies rail lines as small as Angels Flight to make sure they are safe. The city and its engineers should insist on stringent oversight.

Angels Flight, in its short rebirth, was more than a local attraction and a charming relic of a bygone era. It was a meaningful link between the immigrant bustle of Broadway and the financial muscle of Bunker Hill. Rebuild it.

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