Feds begin probe of Bay Area rail-worker deaths
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the deaths of two workers for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system who were hit and killed by a train Saturday, two days after unionized transit workers walked off their jobs in a strike.
The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Federal authorities said Sunday that they were investigating an accident that killed two workers for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system on Saturday, less than 48 hours after employees of the commuter railroad went on strike.
The two workers, a contractor and an employee of the transit system, known as BART, were inspecting a section of track in the East Bay when an out-of-service train that was under computer control struck them. The workers’ names have not been released.
Two investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived from Washington on Sunday and were briefed by BART officials. At a news conference Sunday afternoon, Jim Southworth, investigator-in-charge, said the agency did not know whether the strike would play a role in the investigation.
“My concern coming out here, as it is in every investigation, is to find out what happened,” Southworth said. But he added that the training of the workers would be one factor examined.
Transit-system employees have been embroiled in a dispute for months with BART management over wages, safety procedures, pensions and health benefits. Negotiations that both sides said had brought them close to a deal broke down Thursday, and employees walked off the job Friday.
BART officials said that the train that hit the workers had been on a routine maintenance run, under automated operation. They said that the two workers had been checking on a reported dip in the track.
Standard procedure required one employee to inspect the track while the other acted as a traffic lookout, the officials said. The officials did not say whether that procedure had been followed Saturday.
Some striking workers said Sunday that the accident raised questions about the operation of the train. BART had said it would train managers to operate trains in order to offer a limited shuttle service during the strike.
“I think the likelihood of this happening with a regular train operator is a lot lower,” said one striking worker familiar with train operation. The worker declined to be identified, because he was not authorized to speak about the accident.
Paul Overseir, assistant general manager of operations for BART, said Saturday that it was not known who had been operating the train, but he confirmed that “a number of people” had been on board.
Overseir said the two employees inspecting the track had “simple approval,” meaning that they could work in a restricted area as long as they did not interfere with the normal operation of trains or equipment. Workers with such approval are not allowed to work directly on the track unless they are able to move to a safe location at least 15 seconds before a train moving at top speed arrives.
But the striking worker said that, under normal conditions, only one train operator would be present on a routine maintenance run. He said workers inspecting the tracks would normally carry radios. Employees who need to move directly onto the track for extended work generally ask for a “work order,” calling for all trains to stop until the track is cleared and the employees signal that they are safely out of the area, he said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, one of the two unions that called the strike, halted picketing Sunday out of respect for the two workers, said Chris Finn, recording secretary for the union.
There appeared to be no solid movement toward a settlement of the strike Sunday, with highways remaining clogged and travel hobbled for hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents.
No new negotiations between the unions and management have been scheduled. On Saturday, before the accident occurred, Antonette Bryant, the president of the 900-member Amalgamated Transit Union 1555, announced that the union leaders would take BART’s last offer to their membership this week. But Bryant said in an interview with The Associated Press that she expected the vote to be “a resounding no.”
The agency’s board of directors was to hold a closed special board meeting Monday.