LOS ANGELES (AP) — Operators of the historic Angels Flight hillside railway in downtown Los Angeles had been using a tree branch to override a safety system before a derailment last month, federal safety investigators said in a report issued Thursday.
No one was hurt Sept. 5 in the latest accident on "the shortest railway in the world," though six people had to be helped from the line's two cars.
In its report, the National Transportation Safety Board said the railway's operators had broken off a branch from a nearby tree and used it to permanently depress a button so that the cars on the 298-foot track would restart during unintended stops. These stops, a sign of problems on the line, were happening regularly before the accident.
"When an unintended stop occurred, the cars would only move if the operator depressed and held the 'start' button," the report said of a safety feature "designed to prevent continued automatic movement of the cars when a fault occurs." By wedging the branch against the button, the railway's operators "negat(ed) this safety feature."
The unintended stops were happening "multiple times on each trip" for reasons unknown, though senior railway managers were aware of the use of the branch, the report said.
The document, issued on an "urgent" basis despite the near-closure of the safety board during the partial shutdown of the federal government, also questioned the effectiveness of the system's safety brake and cited "abnormal wheel and rail wear."
The report is not final, and did not assert the accident's probable cause. In September, Angels Flight Railway President John H. Welborne said an electrical issue led to the derailment.
The railway opened in 1901 and for the price of a penny carried people between the Hill Street business district and the top of Bunker Hill.
In 2001, its two cars collided, killing one person and injuring seven others. An investigation faulted a modern gear that had replaced an original part. The emergency brake was also broken.
Rides were halted until March 2010, when the repaired and upgraded railway re-opened. It now ferries tourists up and down the steep hill at about 4 mph for 50 cents a ride.
In 2011, state inspectors closed the railway until it addressed deterioration of its metal wheels; flanges which kept the wheels on the tracks were dangerously worn. The California Public Utilities Commission did not have immediate comment Thursday on what its inspectors found the last time they visited Angels Flight.
On Thursday afternoon, a recorded message at the railway's publicly listed number said the system was undergoing maintenance and would probably open "later in the month or in the middle of the month."
Later in the day, Angels Flight issued a written statement saying that it would not resume public service until it had completed a "corrective action plan" overseen by state regulators. The statement also said the railway has ordered equipment to improve braking.
Welborne, the railway's president, was unavailable for comment on the use of the tree branch.
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