Angels Flight

The Angels Flight railway in 2011. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / July 19, 2011)

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 the the funicular derailed in September, according to the National Transportation and Safety Board.

The report, released Thursday, said the railway, which runs between the Hill Street shopping district and Bunker Hill,  had been experiencing “unintended stops” for months before the accident, with multiple interruptions during each trip, the report said.

The report said operators had broken off a branch from a nearby tree and were using it to keep the start button depressed, overriding the safety feature.

ANGELS FLIGHT: Read the report.

The cause of the unintended stops has not yet been determined, the report says.

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 manually restarted twice in an attempt to move them to their respective gates, but they stopped both times.

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

Angels Flight operators did not 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 assisted off the derailed car by fire officials and five from the upper car.  No one was injured.

The report detailed several other “urgent” safety recommendations for the California Public Utilities Commission, which inspects the railway and will make a final decision on when rail service can resume.

In a statement, an Angels Flight representative said they have been working on a corrective plan with the PUC since September.

Angels Flight carries passengers up and down a steep incline between Hill and Olive streets. The 298-foot rail line originally opened in 1901, operating alongside the 3rd Street tunnel until 1969. It reopened in 1996 in a different location.

The railway was shut down after a fatal accident in 2001 that killed an 83-year-old passenger and injured seven others when the brakes on "Sinai" failed, sending it crashing into the second car, "Olivet."

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

The railway was rebuilt entirely in 2009, with several layers of safety systems to prevent such accidents. After the $3.5-million overhaul, the funicular reopened in March 2010.

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.

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Twitter: @Sam_Schaefer

Samantha.Schaefer@latimes.com