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Monday, October 21, 2013

BART strike: investigation of fatal accident could take months


By Samantha Schaefer and Maura Dolan, October 20, 2013

See website for a video: BART Union Members Hold Memorial For Cooleagues Killed On Tracks

The investigation into the deaths of two maintenance workers who were struck and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit train during a routine track inspection could take a year or longer, a federal investigator told reporters Sunday.

“We will be turning over every stone and opening every door,” said Jim Southworth, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

He said his team of investigators, who arrived at the scene Sunday afternoon, would be looking at  BART operations, mechanical issues, signals, records and inspections. Saturday's accident occurred on the second day of a transit strike.

He said the train operator may be interviewed as early as Monday. “This not a criminal investigation,” he said.

Southworth declined to assess what role, if any, the strike played in the accident. He said the train had no video cameras on the outside, but investigators would examine the signaling system, which signals were in place at the time and mechanical issues in addition to “human factors.”

“We have requested data downloads for all the train equipment,” he said.

He said his team’s job is to gather facts to determine what happened. “Whether the strike plays a role in that, I can’t say at this time,” he said, noting that his team would spend the next four to 10 days gathering information from the scene.

The two workers were killed Saturday while investigating a dip in the track when a train on a routine maintenance run hit them, officials said. One of the victims was a BART employee and the other was a contractor. They have not been identified.

The train was running in automatic mode with an "experienced operator" at the computer controls, BART officials said. Both of the workers who were killed had "extensive experience" with both freight and passenger trains.

BART officials would not say who was operating the controls at the time of the accident, but some trains were being moved by managers, according to an Associated Press report. The two unions representing BART workers had warned of safety risks if managers were allowed to operate the trains during the work stoppage.

Although no talks between Bay Area Rapid Transit officials and union leaders have been scheduled, BART officials said Sunday that the deaths of the two workers  over the weekend should get everyone back to the table to end a three-day-old transit strike.  

“The tragedy has redoubled everyone's commitment to a quick resolution so we can move forward in a spirit of cooperation to provide service to the Bay Area.” BART officials said in a statement posted on its  website.

BART officials have been in communications with union leaders and a mediator, and the BART Board of Directors is scheduled to have a special meeting in closed session Monday to discuss negotiations, a statement from BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said.

“Given the fact there is still no agreement on wages and important work rule changes, BART is open to restarting mediated talks if the mediator determines it is appropriate to reconvene,” the statement said.

With no announced end to the strike, officials urged commuters to make alternate plans for Monday. Union leaders could not be reached for comment.

Operations were halted Friday after a week of marathon negotiations failed to produce a settlement. Though concessions were made by both sides on health benefits and pension contributions, talks broke down over the length of the work day and when overtime pay kicks in.

The strike, the second in four months, produced traffic jams and frustration Friday, but officials predicted the worst was yet to come. Transportation officials said they believed many workers telecommuted or took the day off but would be back to their desks Monday.

BART, the nation's fifth-largest transit system, normally carries 400,000 round-trip passengers each workday. Charter buses hired by the system can carry up to 6,000 passengers each day, according to BART's website, and ferries across the San Francisco Bay will have additional service.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 officials said their 900 workers would not be picketing Sunday out of respect for the victims and their families, but would resume Monday.

Two vigils for the workers were scheduled for Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Walnut Creek BART station and Lake Merritt Plaza in Oakland, according to the union.