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Angels Flight expected to reopen by Labor Day, officials say

Pedestrians climb stairs next to the idle Angels Flight funicular, which was tagged with graffiti in 2016. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Angels Flight, the iconic downtown funicular that has been dormant for more than three years, could be operating again by Labor Day under a new agreement announced Wednesday.

A team led by the ACS company will assume responsibility for repairing, modernizing and operating the railway over the next three decades, officials said.

"At a moment when downtown is experiencing this resurgence, the timing couldn’t be better," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference at the base of the 298-foot railway.

Angels Flight and its twin cars, named Sinai and Olivet, have sat dormant since a derailment in 2013 that left the sole passenger, a tourist from Australia, shaken but unhurt.

The funicular’s spotty safety record, including the death of a passenger in 2001, attracted the attention of state regulators, who have refused to allow Angels Flight to resume operations without a series of potentially costly safety upgrades.

Those requirements include raising the height of the train’s doors to prevent passengers from being flung out during a sudden stop and installing a walkway connected to the track that riders could use if they had to evacuate.

Angels Flight officials have not revealed the expected cost of repairs, except to say it would be a “very significant number.” Railway President Hal Bastian has unsuccessfully urged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to take control of Angels Flight.

As Angels Flight sits dormant, an adjacent 153-step stairway has served as the only direct pedestrian connection linking Bunker Hill’s high-rise apartments and offices with the tacos, pastrami and lattes at Grand Central Market.

The steps often are strewn with trash. On a recent weekday, after a torrential rainfall, the stairs were dotted with fast-food wrappers, a soggy pair of shoes and a handful of lottery tickets dissolving in a puddle.

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest twist in the long saga of the world’s shortest funicular.

Opened on New Year’s Eve in 1901, the iconic orange cars of Angels Flight once shuttled residents of luxe Victorian homes on Bunker Hill to jobs in downtown L.A.

By the 1950s, the railroad had carried more than 100 million passengers. But as residents moved to the suburbs, downtown fell on hard times. The funicular closed in 1969 as crews bulldozed Bunker Hill’s old housing to make way for skyscrapers.

The twin rail cars sat rotting in a warehouse for decades until redevelopment authorities included funding for renovating the funicular in the California Plaza project. Angels Flight reopened in 1996, half a block south of its original location, carrying passengers on a 33-degree incline between Hill and Olive streets.

In 2001, Sinai broke loose near the top of the incline and plummeted down the track, striking Olivet. The impact killed an 83-year-old tourist from New Jersey on vacation with his wife and injured seven other people.

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

The railway was closed for the next nine years. Not long after Sinai and Olivet began running again, state Public Utilities Commission inspectors briefly halted operations after finding “excessive and abnormal wear” on the car’s wheels and tracks.

After the 2013 derailment, federal officials found other issues. A report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board said the funicular’s operators had used a tree branch to override the safety system, which had been causing unexpected stops.

After the derailment, one passenger climbed out of the car and crawled along the tracks toward the upper platform, state regulators said.

The funicular sat dormant for nearly two years even as the clamor to reopen the line grew louder.

At the urging of Garcetti, who at the time was the chair of the Metro board, transportation officials there agreed to study the issue and make a recommendation on how to resume operations. Staff members later recommended that the nonprofit organization that manages the funicular perform a “detailed analysis” of the funding, staffing and maintenance requirements, and left it at that.