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Los Angeles

Design, Oversight Faulted in Fatal Angels Flight Accident

Final federal report expands on state findings on the 2001 crash in downtown L.A.

August 06, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

In a final report, federal investigators said that faulty mechanical and brake systems, combined with weak oversight, led to a fatal crash two years ago at the historic Angels Flight railway, which could open again next year after being closed since the accident.

The crash occurred Feb. 1, 2001, when a car on the historic railway, located on one of the steepest hills in downtown Los Angeles, broke loose and sped backward for about a block before smashing into another rail car at the bottom of the hill.

An 83-year-old man was killed and his wife and six others were injured in the crash, which occurred in front of a crowd of shocked daytime onlookers.

The National Transportation Safety Board's final report was delivered Tuesday in Washington and unanimously approved by the NTSB's five-member board. The report, which mirrored and expanded on findings by state regulators last year, touched on an array of engineering flaws.

First were brake problems.

"The brake system, as designed, was inoperable," the report noted, "as implemented, was not fail-safe, and was further inadequate" because the emergency brakes could not be activated independently of the regular brakes and tested separately. Such a test, it said, "would have revealed that the system's emergency brakes were inoperative."

Angels Flight also lacked backup track brakes and a safety cable that could have stopped a runaway train. Investigators noted that those design features are common on hillside trains, sometimes called funiculars, such as Angels Flight.

Investigators also found that the railway's drivetrain was flawed and that metal on its gear hub was too soft, causing it to fail.

Finally, compounding the design flaws, the railway lacked adequate emergency walkways, according to the report, which prevented riders from escaping and emergency crews from getting into the trains.

In addition, the investigation faulted the Public Utilities Commission, which is responsible for rail safety in California, for failing to "fulfill ... oversight responsibilities" during construction and operations.

Last year, the PUC came out with its own report on the accident. It too blamed design and construction problems. The accident led to reorganization of the commission's rail safety review process.

The NTSB also found fault with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which rebuilt the railway in the mid-1990s. It had closed in 1969, largely because of low ridership, after running for 68 years. The NTSB report criticized the CRA for failing to tightly oversee the reconstruction and operation of the railway.

Christopher Bisgaard, a lawyer representing the agency, disputed the findings and said blame belongs with the railway's engineer and contractor. The CRA believed Angels Flight was "perfectly safe" until the crash, he said.

Bisgaard said the agency intends to help restart the railway, which after its restoration became one of downtown Los Angeles' few tourist draws and an extremely popular link between bustling Broadway Avenue and Bunker Hill.

John Welborne, president of the Angels Flight Railway, which operated the trains for the CRA, said his organization is raising money so the line can reopen in 2004. Welborne said the two Angels Flight cars involved in the accident have been repaired and are in a downtown warehouse.

If it does reopen, Angels Flight will face tougher standards and more reviews. The NTSB called on regulators to more closely review the system before it opens and to require backup brakes and an emergency walkway.

Welborne said he supported those requirements.

"My hope is we can put this all behind us and open up a system that everyone agrees is perfectly safe so people in that area won't have to walk uphill so much," he said.

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