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Angels Flight expected to reopen by Labor Day, officials say

For more than three years, the twin cars of Angels Flight have perched unused on their steep incline as graffiti bloomed on their windows and the sun bleached their orange paint into a gentle peach.

Aside from a cameo in the Oscar-winning movie “La La Land,” the iconic funicular in downtown Los Angeles hasn’t carried passengers since a derailment in 2013 that left a lone rider shaken, but unhurt. 

But the cars, Sinai and Olivet, could begin working again by Labor Day under the terms of a new agreement announced Wednesday.

A group of engineering and transportation firms has agreed to maintain and operate the 298-foot railway and cover the cost of several safety upgrades in exchange for a share of the funicular’s revenue over the next three decades. 

Officials acknowledged the long wait for a plan to resurrect Angels Flight but said the long-term investment will help stabilize the funicular, which has seen long periods of neglect during its 115-year history.

“At a moment when downtown is experiencing this resurgence, the timing couldn’t be better,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference. He described the partnership as “the longest journey to the shortest ride ever.”

Regulators with the California Public Utilities Commission have refused to allow Angels Flight to resume operations without safety upgrades, citing the 2013 derailment and the death of a passenger in 2001

The companies will pay for those upgrades, which include raising the height of the train’s doors to prevent passengers from being flung out during a sudden stop and installing a walkway connected to the track that riders could use if they had to evacuate. 

“I will be riding it myself, that’s how confident I am in the engineers,” Garcetti said. 

The private group will be led by ACS Infrastructure Development, the U.S. arm of a Spanish infrastructure company, in agreement with the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns the funicular.

Officials said the cost of the repairs and the contract’s total value are confidential. 

The engineers have already taken the first step: In January, the CPUC approved a plan outlining how to bring Angels Flight back into service, spokeswoman Constance Gordon said.

The firms also will have the job of maximizing “local and repeat” ridership, advertising the funicular and integrating the line into the local transit network, said Geoffrey Yarema, an attorney who worked on the contract. 

The announcement comes less than a week before the March 7 election. Garcetti campaign spokesman Yusef Robb said the campaign had “absolutely nothing to do with” the Angels Flight event. The mayor’s office said the foundation and ACS finalized the agreement last week.

As Angels Flight sits dormant, an adjacent 153-step stairway has served as the only direct pedestrian connection linking Bunker Hill’s high-rise apartments and offices with the tacos, pastrami and lattes at Grand Central Market.

The steps often are strewn with trash. On a recent weekday, after a torrential rainfall, the stairs were dotted with fast-food wrappers, a soggy pair of shoes and a handful of lottery tickets dissolving in a puddle.

Opened on New Year’s Eve in 1901, the funicular’s iconic orange cars once shuttled residents of luxe Victorian homes on Bunker Hill to jobs in downtown L.A. 

By the 1950s, the railroad had carried more than 100 million passengers. But as residents moved to the suburbs, downtown fell on hard times. The funicular closed in 1969 as crews bulldozed Bunker Hill’s old housing to make way for skyscrapers.

The twin rail cars sat rotting in a warehouse for decades until redevelopment authorities included funding for renovating the funicular in the California Plaza project. Angels Flight reopened in 1996, half a block south of its original location, carrying passengers on a 33-degree incline between Hill and Olive streets. 

In 2001, Sinai broke loose near the top of the incline and plummeted down the track, striking Olivet. The impact killed an 83-year-old tourist from New Jersey on vacation with his wife and injured seven other people.

Investigators later concluded that faulty mechanical and brake systems, combined with weak oversight, led to the crash.

The railway was closed for the next nine years. Not long after Sinai and Olivet began running again, CPUC inspectors briefly halted operations after finding “excessive and abnormal wear” on the car’s wheels and tracks. 

Federal officials found other issues after the derailment in 2013. A report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board said the funicular’s operators had used a tree branch to override the safety system, which had been causing unexpected stops.

One passenger climbed out of the car and crawled along the tracks toward the upper platform, regulators said.

After the derailment, the funicular stopped running, with one exception: Filming “La La Land,” the Oscar-winning film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. 

In a scene that appears in the trailer, the couple shares a kiss inside the car as it chugs upward toward Bunker Hill.

The utilities commission was not aware of the filming until after it took place, and notified the Angels Flight foundation that “the funicular was out of service for all uses, including film shoots,” Gordon said in an email. “They acknowledged that no further uses of any kind would be allowed.”

Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Twitter: @laura_nelson

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UPDATES:

3:45 p.m.: This post was updated with additional details about the upgrade plan.

2:30 p.m.: This post was updated with details about the agreement with the group of private companies, and an additional comment by Mayor Garcetti.

This post was originally published at 12:55 p.m.

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