On March 15, the 109-year-old, 289-foot funicular, Angels Flight, reopened on LA’s Bunker Hill, and I wondered if anyone actually used it. Not just rode it—in fact, the Flight counted 30,000 boardings within the first two weeks of reopening—but actually used it.
Downtown is now full of seemingly throwback rail projects: A proposal for a streetcar just received $250,000 in funding, and the new Gold Line extension swings through an old right-of-way to East LA. At any other moment, Angels Flight would be a ride, an urban folly. But the fact that it’s reopening right now made me wonder if it might just be emblematic of our resurgent rail movement, a transportation link that people actually boarded to get from A to B, just like they did in 1901.
The self-proclaimed “shortest railway in the world” has had its own ups and downs. It was the vision of Colonel James Ward Eddy—engineer and, so we hear, friend of Abraham Lincoln—to service the residents who lived in Victorian houses at its top, a steep hike for those in petticoats and button-up boots shuttling their goods from the Grand Central Market for a penny each way.
But declining ridership ground it to a halt around 1969, when it was disassembled and stored in a CRA warehouse. When resurrected as part of the California Plaza redevelopment, it was moved a half-block to the south, since a series of stacked residences around the 3rd Street tunnel had taken its place. The non-profit Angels Flight Railway Foundation raised money for the renovation and began operating it again in 1996.
Then it was shut down after a 2001 accident where one of the trains plummeted to the bottom of the hill, smashing into the other. One person was killed, and the founder of the engineering firm responsible supposedly fled to Mexico. Plagued with funding issues and safety inspections for the last nine years, Angels Flight has been closed for so long that most people might have dismissed it as an abandoned Steampunk installation.
Tickets are a quarter each (or five rides for a dollar, which will get you an old-fashioned book of tickets), purchased from the operator wearing era-appropriate attire in the ticket booth. You board a wood-paneled streetcar lined with faux- vintage ads from local businesses.
In 45 seconds, you’ve gone from the glass towers of California Plaza to the Beaux-Arts buildings on Hill Street and the smell of rotisserie chickens wafting from the Grand Central Market. Angels Flight could be the most on-time, overall-pleasant transit experience in Southern California. The twin trains, named Sinai and Olivet, trade places every few minutes, from 6:45 a.m. to 10 p.m., like two caterpillars inching up and down a bougainvillea-covered hillside of Angels Knoll park.
On a sunny April morning I rode Sinai three times, up and down its jingly, wooden diagonal, enjoying the view and the time-traveling aspects. But I encountered only joyriders like myself. On my last round trip, Sinai paused at Hill Street and a woman with a camouflage backpack appeared on the seat in front of me. As we started the ascent, I looked closer and realized she had a familiar flush to her cheeks. “Do you work up at California Plaza?” I asked. She nodded. “Do you ride this to work?” She grinned. “I do sometimes,” she said. “Especially when I’m late. It’s nice not walking up the stairs anymore.” Score one for the rail renaissance.