DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a recent Friday afternoon, streams of Bunker Hill workers and a smattering of tourists descended from California Plaza down to Hill Street, navigating a steep flight of narrow stairs — all 153 of them.
A year ago at least some of those trekkers would have taken a quick ride on Angels Flight, the historic railway that connects Bunker Hill and the Historic Core. Yet the funicular has not carried passengers since it derailed on Sept 5.
Although there were no injuries — unlike in a fatal 2001 accident —the incident and consequent investigations revealed a litany of mechanical, electrical and human errors, including the infamous use of a tree branch to override a start/stop safety feature.
While those issues have been addressed by the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the nonprofit that operates and manages the funicular, two sticking points remain. Until these are resolved, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates railways and other public utilities, and the National Transportation Safety Board, an investigative agency that issued a harsh report in October on the funicular’s operations, will not allow Angels Flight to reopen.
The CPUC and NTSB want to see the creation of a track-adjacent walkway for use in future evacuations. They also want to see the installation of end-gates on the rail cars that are tall enough (per NTSB recommendations) to prevent a passenger from being ejected in the event of a sudden stop.
Foundation President John Welborne contends that important mechanical and electrical systems have been revamped and that the railway is ready to operate safely. He pointed to the hiring of two independent engineers to review changes to the funicular safety system and the management process.
“We and outside experts have been looking at the two remaining issues since the CPUC gave credence to the recommendations in the October NTSB report,” Welborne said. “Angels Flight will be up and running safely as soon as we address those recommendations.”
However, he would not give a timeframe of when that may happen.
The delay is a concern to area residents and workers, but the greatest priority is ensuring that accidents don’t happen again, said 14th District City Councilman José Huizar.
“While I’m as frustrated as anybody about the non-operation of Angels Flight, the public’s safety remains my main concern,” Huizar said in an email to Downtown News. “If more needs to be done to ensure that safety, then so be it. I would hope that this could be rectified in a timely manner.”
The actual cause of the derailment on Sept. 5 was a redundant track brake system that engaged after losing power, which it was designed to do. Power to the system came from a third rail underneath the car, which was grounded by a wire brush. Grease had built up on the brush, blocking the flow of electricity.
That track brake system has been replaced with a “fail-safe” carrier rope brake. The CPUC and NTSB participated in the testing of that system, which they have deemed satisfactory, according to the CPUC.
Welborne said other shortfalls have been addressed, including abnormal rail and wheel wear, as part of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation’s 15-point Corrective Action Plan. That was created in September with input from the CPUC, he said.
Still, questions remain. Though unrelated to the derailment, the investigation found that the funicular had been stopping intermittently because of an unidentified electrical problem, and that Angels Flight operators overrode the electronic system by depressing the start/stop button with a tree branch so that it would run without pauses. That issue was highlighted in the NTSB report, which also criticized senior Angels Flight officials for knowing about the branch for months before it came to light.
Welborne now says that the cause of the start/stop problem was faulty wiring that was damaged by “pigeon excrement.” The system has been fixed and approved by the CPUC, he added.
Welborne also maintains that despite the derailment and a 2010 month-long closure related to an open end-gate observed by a CPUC inspector, Angels Flight is a safe system.
“Some of this stuff, like the tree branch, is human nature. If a problem cannot be identified, there is pressure to keep operating as long as it isn’t dangerous,” Welborne said. “It was the operators’ idea to use the branch, and we don’t defend it at this point. But we don’t believe we were operating unsafely.”
Welborne has backing in his assertion. Greg Bryant and Ben Sheldon, engineers with experience in the theme park industry, were hired by the foundation to oversee efforts after the Sept. 5 derailment. In their report on behalf of the McLaren Engineering Group, they found that the nonprofit is doing everything possible to fix the funicular.
“In addition to our visit, our review of the documentation we requested confirms to us that the management, mechanics, consultants and vendors have been, and are, competently addressing the safety and operational issues at the Railway,” the report stated.
The biggest issue that Bryant noticed was the ineffectiveness of the control system in accurately reporting maintenance issues and showing a way to fix it, as evidenced by the tree-branch incident, he said in an interview. Otherwise, he believes the system is ready to operate, even without taller end-gates and the evacuation walkway.
“Mechanically, if this was a theme park ride operating on theme-park safety standards, it would already be open,” he said.
Part of what has sparked public concern is the previous accident. The current iteration of Angels Flight opened in 1996. Five years later, a problem with the gear and drive system caused one car to roll down the tracks and slam into the other, killing one man and injuring seven other people. Angels Flight remained closed for nine years as fixes were made and legal cases were settled.
That past record also sparks questions as to when the funicular will be allowed to resume operations. Despite the fixes to the direct cause of the derailment, the CPUC has indicated no cars will roll until the evacuation walkway and end-gates are addressed.
“Angels Flight cars have been operating in test mode for several hours per day, but are essentially unable to reopen without having dealt with the NTSB recommendations on the walkway and end-gates,” the CPUC said in a statement to Downtown News. “We understand that Angels Flight is working with engineers to develop a walkway proposal. No further information has been supplied by Angels Flight relative to the passenger containment issues resulting from the current end-gate design.”
While he confirmed that the foundation is exploring designs for a walkway and updated end-gates, Welborne fiercely argues that these features are not necessary to keep the system running safely.
Whether the Angels Flight Railway Foundation will continue to maintain and operate the funicular indefinitely is also unclear. The nonprofit has a long-term lease on the railway from the city, but Welborne said that the original idea was for the nonprofit to help fund the project and support it behind the scenes, not run it day-to-day.
No matter what, Welborne wants the railway to stay in the private sector and rejects calls for government intervention in operating it.
“Our goal remains to have Angels Flight running safely and transition day-to-day operations to a successor,” he said. “It’s honestly not a pleasure to have to deal with this, but who would we even turn the keys over to even if I wanted to quit?”
Of course, that question doesn’t have to be answered as long as Angels Flight remains closed.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014