Angels Flight Guardian Angel John Welborne

Press conference announcing the reopening of Angels Flight by Labor Day (photo from John Welborne)
Press conference announcing the reopening of Angels Flight by Labor Day (photo from John Welborne)

The re-opening of Angels Flight Railway by Labor Day, which was announced last week by Mayor Eric Garcetti, has been decades in the making. It is a testament to the dogged patience and persistence of Windsor Square resident John Welborne, whose role in the effort dates back to 1978, when he conceived the idea of bringing back the famous funicular to celebrate the City’s bicentennial by placing a monument and time capsule at the top of Angels Flight at Bunker Hill.

For Welborne, the 116-year-old, 298-foot funicular that descended from Bunker Hill to the City’s historic core, which is touted as the world’s shortest railway, was the quintessential LA experience.  His efforts to bring back the railway were extensively detailed in a the Buzz story in June 2013, shortly after a KCET documentary, “L.A. as Subject: Incline L.A. Part 1 – Downtown,” aired.

Finally restored and installed in a new location in 1996, the railway was shut down when a railcar broke loose in 2001, raced down the hill and collided with a railcar at the bottom, killing one passenger and injuring seven. After nine years, the railway re-opened in 2010, only to have to shut down again  after a derailment in September, 2013.

Last week’s announcement that The Angels Flight Railway Foundation and ACS Group had finalized an agreement to recondition, operate, and maintain the funicular for the next 30 years was welcome news for Angelenos and, not surprisingly, Welborne once again helped behind the scenes.

Angels Flight is considered one of the most important preservation projects undertaken in downtown. Generations of Angelenos had seen it or ridden on it before its removal in 1969, when the City decided to rebuild Bunker Hill.

Welborne told the Buzz, when we caught up with him for the backstory, that reopening Angels Flight was a collaborative effort of many who had been working to preserve the railway for years, as well as relative newcomers who pressured the City to make good on its promises to preserve Angels Flight.

As part of the effort, Angels Flight Railway volunteer board members Hal Bastian and Adele Yellin made contacts with various transportation engineering firms that might consider operating the railway, since it was actually breaking down even before it was shut down in 2013, explained Welborne. (He had stepped down from the board in 2014, but continued to volunteer.)

“It was always our intention to find another operator when we formed the foundation in 1995,” said Welborne,  “It’s just taken 22 years to do it!”

Nuria Haltiwanger, CEO, ACS Infrastructure. New Operator through joint venture, Angels Flight Development Company LLC
Nuria Haltiwanger, CEO, ACS Infrastructure. New Operator through the joint venture Angels Flight Development Company LLC (photo by John Welborne)

The new operator, known as Angels Flight Development Company LLC, is a joint venture with ACS Infrastructure (a Madrid, Spain-based engineering and construction firm), Dragados USA of New York, and  Sener Engineering & Systems, of Gexto, Spain. They will work with the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, and LA Metro on a unique public-private partnership to recondition, operate and maintain the historic railway/funicular for the next 30 years.

In the press announcement,  Nuria Haltiwanger, CEO for ACS Infrastructure Development, Inc. said. “This project is not just about connecting people from the top and bottom of Bunker Hill.  It is about connecting Angelenos to the history of their vibrant city.  We look forward to the reopening of Angels Flight and to working together with the Foundation and City in the preservation and continuation of the Angels Flight legacy.”

Welborne credits Mayor Garcetti for requesting that Metro develop a plan for operation of the railway, and the friends and fans of Angels Flight who helped gather crucial public support.

“Angels Flight is a cultural gem that tells an unforgettable story about the history of Los Angeles,” Garcetti said in a statement announcing the re-opening. “Today, we celebrate the rebirth of this iconic attraction – and once the modernization is complete, we will welcome millions of visitors from around the world to experience it with us.”

In addition to its tourist draw, the funicular will serve as an important transit connection between the Pershing Square Metro station and the top of Bunker Hill – an area that includes Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, MOCA, the Los Angeles Music Center, among other cultural institutions. As part of the agreement, Metro tap card holders will receive a 50 percent fare discount for the next three years.

But much more than that, Angels Flight will be returned to Los Angeles for all to enjoy.

Actually, many people are already enjoying an early peek at Angels Flight…in the recent film “La La Land,” which celebrates the glories and flaws of the L.A. experience.  We thought it was a cool tribute to this iconic piece of LA history…and its guardian angel got to make cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning film. Here’s Welborne’s account of how it happened:

“About 18 months ago, I got a call about shooting a movie called “La La Land.” I thought, “What a ditzy title.” Just shows you what I know,” recalled Welborne. “I negotiated a fair payment and forgot all about it. Several months later, I go down there with our mechanic around 6 a.m. to move the cars, and a crew member comes in at 8 a.m. and starts cleaning the interior of the cars so they are spotless.”

“Around 1 p.m., they are getting ready for the shoot and actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone arrive. Well, even I have heard of them,” said Welborne. “It was a very hot day in mid-October 2015, and it was a very small group shooting the scene. During a pause in shooting, our mechanic invited Gosling and Stone into the air-conditioned Station House, and we four started talking. Both were delightful. Very smart. It turned out that, early in his career, Gosling had lived three blocks away for about five years, which is probably the reason they chose Angels Flight as a location. After they do one or two takes, I’m just standing in the Station House [in his usual John Welborne uniform — white shirt and bow tie], behind the closed door, when someone knocks on the door and asks if the door could be be left open and if I could stand there and look amused and quizzical. Well, I did. They shot for a few minutes more, then wrapped and packed up. Moments later, a production assistant showed up with an extras contract and a W-4 for me to sign, and that was it. The next year, I saw the trailer and the scene hadn’t been cut.”

It was a fitting tribute to two local legends…and definitely a great “Hollywood” ending.

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Screenshot from the “La La Land” movie trailer…with John Welborne in the Angels Flight Station House (copyright Lionsgate)

About Patricia Lombard

Patricia Lombard is the co-editor and publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, “Larchmont” for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier’s Books.

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