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Angels Flight operators used tree branch to override safety system

Operators of the downtown funicular railway had broken off a branch from a nearby tree to keep start button depressed, NTSB says in report.

October 10, 2013|By Samantha Schaefer
  • One of the two Angels Flight rail cars remains upright but leaning after jumping the tracks near Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 5. The railway had been experiencing “unintended stops” for months, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released Thursday.
One of the two Angels Flight rail cars remains upright but leaning after… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Operators of the historic Angels Flight railway in downtown Los Angeles had been using a tree branch to override a safety system in the months before a derailment in September, the latest in a series of accidents and safety concerns for the funicular.

The railway, which carries passengers up and down a steep hill between the Hill Street shopping district and Bunker Hill, had been experiencing "unintended stops" for months, with multiple interruptions during each trip at the time of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released Thursday.

Operators had broken off a branch from a nearby tree and were using it to keep the start button depressed, overriding a safety feature, the report said. Senior Angels Flight management officials were aware of the practice, operators told investigators.

The cause of the unintended stops, which indicate a problem with the railway, has not yet been determined, the report noted

On Sept. 5, the downward-moving car — named Sinai — derailed near the middle of the track. The operator saw the car was stopped but was unaware it had derailed, the report said. The cars were then restarted twice in an attempt to move them to their respective gates, but they stopped each time.

"The operator then recognized a derailment had occurred and notified senior Angels Flight management of the derailment," the NTSB said.

But Angels Flight operators failed to notify the National Response Center or call 911 for assistance, according to the report. It was a bystander, the report said, who finally called the Fire Department to report the accident.

One passenger was helped off the derailed car and five were guided from the upper car by fire officials. No one was injured.

The report detailed several other "urgent" recommendations, including preventing excessive wheel and track wear, maintaining emergency stop systems and ensuring that safety systems are not bypassed.

The report also recommended that operators develop evacuation routes after one passenger in last month's accident was captured on video crawling from the stalled car because of the lack of available walkways or railing.

The cause of the accident still has not been determined, the NTSB said.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which inspects railways, will have the final say on when Angels Flight can resume operating. In a statement, an Angels Flight representative said they have been working on a corrective plan with the CPUC since mid-September.

The 298-foot rail line originally opened in 1901, operating alongside the 3rd Street tunnel until 1969. It reopened 30 years later at its current location.

The railway was shut down after a fatal accident in 2001 that killed an 83-year-old passenger and injured seven others when Sinai accelerated down the hill and crashed into the second car, Olivet.

Angels Flight reopened on March 15, 2010, a year after it was rebuilt at a cost of $3.5 million, with several layers of safety systems to prevent such accidents, according to railway President John Welborne.

It was briefly shut down in June 2010 after a car was seen operating with an open gate and again in 2011 because of wheel deterioration.

samantha.schaefer@latimes.com

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