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Angels Flight, halted, awaits new wheels

Inspectors shut the historic railway on Bunker Hill, saying the deteriorated condition of its cars' wheels pose a safety hazard. It's the second closure of Angels Flight in a year.

June 11, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Angels Flight's twin rail cars, Sinai and Olivet, sit idle on their track in downtown Los Angeles. The funicular can't reopen until its wheels are replaced.
Angels Flight's twin rail cars, Sinai and Olivet, sit idle on their… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The two rail cars sit side by side, neither here nor there.

Stopped midway along the 298-foot route up the face of Bunker Hill between Hill and Olive streets, the historic Angels Flight railway cars have been forced to halt after inspectors determined that their 15-year-old wheels need replacing.

The California Public Utilities Commission concluded Thursday that the wheels' flanges — rims added for strength — were worn down to less than a quarter of an inch, one-third of what is deemed safe.

Photos: Angels Flight

The deteriorated condition of the wheels posed a safety hazard and put the rail cars at risk, said Richard Clark, director of the agency's consumer protection and safety division. Clark said the discovery was considered significant, especially because the railway reopened little more than a year ago after a nine-year closure and a major renovation.

Angels Flight also was shut down last year because of a faulty door.

"Twice within one year we find major problems with it that caused us to take the extraordinary step of closing it down, so, yes, we're very concerned," Clark said.

John Welborne, president of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, said the organization takes safety seriously and had already been looking into swapping out the current wheels. Those wheels, he said, were in use when Angels Flight was shut down in 2001 after the brakes failed on one car, causing it to crash into the other. An 83-year-old passenger was killed and seven others were injured in that accident. After a $3.5-million overhaul, the funicular reopened in March 2010.

Welborne said the cars are monitored and inspected regularly. Earlier this year, he said, an engineer determined the wheels were in good shape but did note that they would eventually need replacing.

"We have been watching them and decided to move forward to get new wheels through our own inspection," Welborne said. Instead of shutting down the railway, however, the organization had planned to switch in the new wheels during the railway's off hours. The cars run 16 hours a day, seven days a week; maintenance is usually done late at night or early in the morning.

Now that operations have ceased altogether, Welborne, a volunteer, finds himself hurriedly hunting down eight 12-inch steel wheels that will fit the 110-year-old funicular railway. The wheels probably will have to be custom made, and it could be several weeks before the cars are running again, he said.

First opened in a different location on New Year's Eve in 1901, Angels Flight was once the transport of wealthy residents who paid a penny to ride the cars, named Olivet and Sinai, up to the Victorian homes and bungalows atop Bunker Hill.

Now, at 25 cents a ride, the cars collect 2,500 to 3,000 fares a day. Some people rely heavily on it to avoid making the arduous climb up to California Plaza.

On Friday, potential riders were disappointed to learn they would have to trudge up the stairs rather than hop onto the "shortest railway in the world." Among the dozens of out-of-breath walkers and dismayed tourists was downtown resident Gratiana Pol, who called the temporary closure "heartbreaking."

The 32-year-old doctoral student at USC actually moved to her high-rise because it overlooks the quaint, old railway. "It made me think, this is an exciting historic place," she said. "Every time I ride it, it's like a little adventure. Walking is by far not as pleasant."

Photos: Angels Flight

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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