By ELIZABETH HSING-HUEI CHOU
City News Service
LOS ANGELES — Efforts to re-open Angels Flight, a historic railway that transports passengers a short distance along downtown’s Bunker Hill, have been stymied by a lack of response from federal regulators, a downtown booster said last week.
The funicular has been closed since one of the two rail cars came off the tracks in September 2013.
The six people riding in the cars were not injured, but a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report released a month later indicated that railway operators had been using a tree branch for months to bypass a safety feature.
Federal officials and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) are requiring Angels Flight’s operators to build a walkway next to the tracks before they would allow passengers to be carried on the funicular again, according to Hal Bastian, president of the nonprofit organization that has traditionally operated the railway.
Bastian, a downtown resident who says he is an active booster of the area, told City News Service the organization is working to comply with the regulators.
“We’re in the process of engineering and pricing” the project, he said, but it is not a fast process. He added that he disagrees the evacuation staircase is the best solution.
Bastian said he wants to propose some alternative ways of meeting safety requirements, but NTSB officials have not returned his phone calls and emails, while PUC officials “won’t budge” and are deferring to the federal officials’ requirements.
This has created a “bureaucratic stalemate,” in Bastian’s opinion.
Bastian said he was recently elected head of the Angels Flight Railway group, which is run by volunteers, taking over for former longtime President John Welborne, a “faithful steward” of the railway for 20 years.
Bastian said he had hoped that by taking up the baton, he could bring new energy to re-opening Angels Flight. Nearly two years after it closed, he now feels it might be better for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the county’s transportation agency, to take over Angels Flight’s operation, he said.
Bastian argued that the railway is not a tourist attraction, but a “critical transportation linkage between the base of Bunker Hill to the top of Bunker Hill” and that climbing a stairway, which has about 150 steps, up the hill is akin to crossing an entire football field.
Bastian said he is hoping that a petition — which he said was launched independently of the nonprofit organization — would persuade Mayor Eric Garcetti to intervene.
Bastian, who has reached out to the mayor’s office about Angels Flight, said he signed the petition and “hopefully it will take it to the top of his list of things to do.”
“We just want him to know that we need him and want him, and would appreciate his leadership to get Angels Flight running again,” he said.
Local historians and tour company operators Richard Schave and Kim Cooper started the petition, which has garnered more than 900 signatures since backers began circulating it July 15.
The petition calls for Garcetti to step in to “help cut the red tape in Sacramento and San Francisco” so that something could be done to allow the railway, known as a funicular, to begin operating again.
Schave told City News Service the funicular has been vandalized since its closure and it will continue to fall into disrepair if nothing is done.
“It is the last vestige of Victorian Los Angeles,” he said. “It is just an incredibly important structure and much beloved.”
Gordon Pattison, who lived in Bunker Hill from the 1940s to the 1960s, said it is one of the last structures left over from when the area was residential.
“It’s a unique part of our heritage, it is functional,” Pattison said.
“It’s one of the city’s great assets and it should be running again.”
Pattison said if Angels Flight were to re-open it could take workers between the office buildings in the California Plaza, at the top of the hill, and the numerous eateries in Grand Central Market.
The trek on the steep hill would normally take about five minutes of walking, Pattison said.
Welborne, president of Angels Flight Railway in 2013, said at the time that the nonprofit organization has been struggling for years to keep fares low, relying heavily on donations and income from movie shoots. A recent Muppets movie included a cameo for the railway, which brought in close to $2,000.
Col. J.W. Eddy first opened a funicular rail car up Bunker Hill on Dec. 31, 1901, when rides cost a penny.
It was dismantled and put into storage in 1969 because of the Bunker Hill urban renewal project, then rebuilt and reopened in 1996, a half-block south of the original site.
In 2001, an accident that killed one person and seriously injured seven others prompted another closure that lasted nine years.
It reopened in 2010, in time for the railway’s celebration of its 110th anniversary on New Year’s Eve 2010.
The PUC, which oversees Angels Flight, shut it down for almost a month in June 2012 when inspectors found that a wheel part that holds the cars on the track, the flange, had been worn down to a thickness that was unsafe on three of eight wheels.
The funicular, which takes riders on one-minute trips up and down Bunker Hill, re-opened July 5, 2012, after the operator installed all new wheels made of harder steel.
The railway still uses its original cars from 1901, named Olivet and Sinai.
“It is the last vestige of Victorian Los Angeles. It is just an incredibly important structure and much beloved.”
— Historian Richard Schave