The trouble with Angels Flight
For such a short rail trip, Angels Flight is a lot of trouble.
The historic two-car funicular railway has carried passengers up and down a hillside in downtown Los Angeles for more than a century — except when it’s been out of commission.
In the last 12 years alone, it has been shut down four times, the longest after a disastrous 2001 brake failure killed a passenger and injured others. It was also shut down when a gate was left open on one of the cars. And again when some deteriorating wheels needed to be repaired. Last month, a fifth level of a redundant braking system engaged and a car derailed. Since then, the railway has been shut down indefinitely.
Each misstep has consequences — a shutdown by a state regulator, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, an expensive fix. Nevertheless, we think this funicular should take flight again.
Angels Flight is not technically as old as its fabled history would seem to indicate. The original track is gone; the new track was built in 1995. That’s a good thing. The quirky cars are historic, but they have completely new undercarriages. They are run by a sophisticated and sensitive computer system known as a programmable logic controller. A human operator closes the gate, pushes a start button and supervises the passengers. The computer system takes over once the start button is pressed.
Yet the National Transportation Safety Board issued a tough report on the September incident, including noting that an operator had been using a tree branch to press down the start button to override some computer glitches in running the railway.
John Welborne, president of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the private entity that runs the ride, says the organization is working hard to solve the problems, and he takes responsibility for OKing the use of the tree branch. He can’t give a reopening date.
We want Angels Flight reopened, and we also want the foundation to pay close attention to the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations. And no more lame use of tree branches. Also, keep in mind that no public dollars go into the operation of Angel’s Flight and that short railways have run safely for many years on mountainsides far steeper and more treacherous than Bunker Hill.
Angels Flight is one of the country’s few remaining funiculars and among the historic landmarks of downtown. In 1901, people rode up and down for a penny each way. Today, the one-minute-and-four-second ride costs a still-exquisitely-cheap 50 cents. As long as it’s safe, let’s keep riding.
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