Cars returned to downtown L.A.'s Angels Flight funicular

Angels Flight rail cars return
Workers lower an Angels Flight rail car onto the tracks in downtown Los Angeles. The railway that takes passengers to the top of Bunker Hill has been closed since a fatal accident in 2001 but could reopen as early as the end of the year. More photos >>>
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Historic cars were returned Saturday to the Angels Flight funicular, but no date has been slated for reopening the tiny railway, closed since a 2001 fatal accident.

John H. Welborne, president of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, said so many dates for restarting the downtown Los Angeles line have come and gone, he hesitates to name another. But with the historic cars back in place, he hopes to see the railway back in operation by year’s end or early next year.

“It’s a big achievement,” Welborne said of returning the cars. Welborne said he’d like to see the tram moving by Dec. 31, the 107th anniversary of Col. J.W. Eddy opening the funicular as a way to spare Angelenos the walk up the steep incline to Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles.

Patrick and Kathleen Hamamoto and their 18-year-old son Ryan looked on Saturday as a giant crane lifted the 100-year-old, pumpkin-colored cars, named Olivet and Sinai, onto the tracks after a seven-year reconstruction that included restoring the original wooden slat seats. The Hamamotos, who had visited the line with their grandparents in the 1960s, stopped so Ryan could take a ride.

“We hadn’t realized it hadn’t been reopened yet,” said Kathleen Hamamoto, a Chino Hills resident, standing on the steep stairway by the tracks, snapping pictures. “It’s an icon of Los Angeles, and we don’t have many of them; they keep tearing them down.”

“It was magical,” Patrick Hamamoto said, drawing on his childhood memories of the railway. “None of these high-rises were here; this was all there was.”

Welborne said the restoration was delayed by the investigation into the deadly collision, as well as the litigation that followed. Private donors paid for two-thirds of the $3.5 million project, including mystery writer Michael Connelly, whose book “Angels Flight” was about a murder on the funicular.

Workers restored the original funicular engineering, which counterbalances the two cars on a single cable, and added several redundant braking systems. Welborne said the old technology, which dates back to the 1850s, would have prevented the 2001 collision because “it’s impossible for the cars to occupy the same space at the same time.”

Angels Flight, dubbed the shortest railway in the world, will provide public transportation up the steep incline between Hill Street and California Plaza on Grand Avenue. The price will remain 25 cents a ride, Welborne said.

Holland is a Times staff writer.

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