Watch CBS News

The decades-long effort to save Los Angeles' iconic railway, Angels Flight

L.A.'s Angels Flight reopens
L.A.'s Angels Flight reopens after setbacks 04:40

This piece originally aired on August 31, 2017.

It's known as the "World's Shortest Railway," and it's reopening to the public Thursday in Los Angeles. The train, known as Angels Flight, has carried people on and off for much of the past 116 years, traveling about 300 feet on a 33 percent grade in the heart of downtown L.A.

But on many occasions throughout its long history, it almost disappeared for good. 

In 1901, the Angels Flight Railway began what would be over 100 million trips up and down L.A.'s Bunker Hill. It was short, but the commute was practical, reports "CBS Sunday Morning's" Lee Cowan. 

Gordon Pattison remembers his first ride as a child in 1946. For him, the twin cars – named Olivet and Sinai – are every bit as iconic as the Hollywood sign itself. He says the ring of the cable over the rollers is "absolutely the same." 

The little railway became a piece of pop culture, making frequent cameos on screen. Perry Mason boarded Angels Flight for a trip to the courthouse far below. It was an extra behind Jimmy Stewart in "The Glenn Miller Story." And it's currently the scene of the crime in the upcoming season of Amazon's streaming series "Bosch," as in detective Harry Bosch. 

"I'll always be the guy who killed somebody on Angels Flight," joked bestselling author Michael Connelly. 

He says Angels Flight's place in L.A. lore made it the perfect setting for his famed gumshoe to search for clues.
"To me, Angels Flight is a real live metaphor, it's a bridge that goes from old L.A. to new L.A.," Connelly said. 

Angels Flight in Los Angeles CBS News

This little railway even won an Oscar with some help from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Their on-board kiss in "La La Land" was no accident.

"Gosling told the story that when he was an up-and-coming actor he was living downtown, about a block away from Angels Flight, and he always wanted to ride it and it was always closed," said John Welborne of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation.

Like any Tinsel Town titan, its career had its ups and downs.

By the late 60s, progress in the form of downtown skyscrapers had made Angels Flight seem more like a relic than a railway. In 1969, it was dismantled and put in storage.
"It was loved that much by the people of Los Angeles, and the city council on behalf of the people made the promise that it'll come back," Welborne said.

It took almost 30 years, but Angels Flight did finally come back.
But there was a problem. The restoration had been done improperly. In 2001, one of the cars broke loose, killing an 83-year-old tourist. It was shut down. 

Then in 2013, a derailment forced yet another shutdown. And that's where Olivet and Sinai have been sitting ever since, their only customers the goats grazing on the growing grass beneath – an incline too steep for any lawn mower.

Goats below Angels Flight CBS News

"Yeah, should we just give up, and walk away? And we all looked at each other and said, we can't do that," Welborne said.

But Angels Flight needed a few angels to foot the bill for a return to service – and they came in the form of downtown investors anxious to weave the old into the new.

A host of safety upgrades have been done. They even evicted the termites. And, finally, Angels Flight is on track again.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.