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New questions arise about safety of L.A.'s historic Angels Flight

October 12, 2013|By Samantha Schaefer and Kate Mather

Local officials are demanding assurances that the  Angels Flight railway in downtown Los Angeles is safe after regulators found a new problem.

On Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that in the months before a September derailment, operators of the historic railway had been using a small tree branch to hold down the start button to keep the trains running.

The railway's two cars had been running haltingly in the weeks leading up to the derailment, which caused no injuries. Holding down the start button appears to have been an attempt to override a safety system that might have been detecting a problem, the NTSB report suggested. Angels Flight management was aware of the use of the stick, authorities said.

Angels Flight has been around for 112 years, no small piece of history by Los Angeles standards. But it's been closed for roughly a third of that time, shuttered by accidents and worn-out wheels and stashed in a dingy warehouse to make room for urban renewal projects.

Now it's closed again, indefinitely.

In recent years, local officials and regulators have voiced worries about the integrity of the railway. Federal investigators raised red flags about the emergency braking system and wheel wear, among other things. In 2010, they urged the operator to build emergency walkways along the side of the tracks so passengers could safely evacuate. The operator argued that the emergency exit would make it more hazardous for riders, and no walkway has been built.

The latest derailment has resurrected safety concerns among officials.

"In this case, results are what matter, and we'd like to see some results," said Rick Coca, a spokesman for City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents downtown. "I think everybody thought these types of issues had been dealt with."

On Friday, visitors hoping to take the famously short, rumbling, 33-degree ride from Hill Street up to Olive Street were greeted instead with still silence, a bleak reminder that Angels Flight is an enigmatic icon, beloved and bedeviled all at once.

"It's such a simple thing," said Tim Lee, who lives two blocks from the funicular and used it several times a week. "How come they can't keep it open?"

Beyond its convenience, Angels Flight is — or should be — "the gem of the neighborhood," Lee said.

"When people come to L.A., it's the first thing I show them," he said. "They're always like, 'Wow, I didn't know L.A. had this thing. I thought it was all suburbs.' "

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