Transit agency changes safety rules after deaths

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Associated Press

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 6:06 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 24 at 6:07 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Bay Area Rapid Transit trains will be required to slow down or stop as they approach track workers following the deaths of two inspectors who were struck during a labor strike last weekend, the agency said Thursday.

BART Assistant General Manager Paul Oversier told the transit district's board of directors that the new rule will replace the previous practice of making workers solely responsible for their own safety as they perform simpler tasks on the tracks of the commuter rail line.

The move "addresses the No. 1 issue surrounding this incident," Oversier said.

"Fortunately, the fatalities we have are few and far between," he said. "That said, obviously one is too many."

The two workers, both experienced transportation engineers, had received what BART calls "simple approval" on Saturday to inspect an above-ground section of track between two stations in the Easy Bay city of Walnut Creek where a dip in the rails had been reported.

Under that process, one worker is supposed to be designated as a lookout and to stand away from the tracks to warn the other of an oncoming train. Teams also are required to have a plan for getting out of harm's way in 15 seconds.

"It is the primary mechanism people use for traveling by foot along the railway," said Oversier, who estimated the procedure is used hundreds of times every month.

Federal safety investigators who are reviewing the events leading up the accident have said the train that struck the workers was traveling 60 to 70 mph and did not have to slow down or observe any safety signals as it approached them.

The workers — Christopher Sheppard, 58, a BART track engineer, and Laurence Daniels, 66, a contract employee — also did not have radios or other communications device to alert them when a train was approaching, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Paul Southworth said.

The NTSB has said that a person learning to operate the train was running it under computer control instead of manually when it hit the two men. It was on a maintenance run and was not carrying passengers due to the transit agency's strike.

The operator heard an announcement just before the accident that there were people on the tracks, Southworth said. A horn was sounded and emergency brakes were applied, and so far no mechanical problems have been discovered, he said.

Under the new procedures, train operators have to slow down to 27 mph or less until they know it is safe to proceed, while track workers would be allowed to highlight their presence with flags and portable track switches, according to a memo issued to people who work in BART's control center.

To further protect workers, trains might also have to stop, be operated manually or rerouted around job sites using single-tracking, the memo said.

In 2008, after the death of another track worker, BART considered outfitting employees with armbands and transponders that would signal them when a train was approaching, Oversier said. The devices were not adopted because the transit agency and its unions concluded they would not add to the level of safety that existed then, he said.

The agency plans to review technological approaches that might have been developed since then, he said.

Meanwhile, a BART train that was damaged when a fire erupted under it on Wednesday in the East Bay not far from the site of Saturday's accident was cleared from the tracks and taken to a maintenance yard on Thursday.

No one was injured in the fire, which forced an evacuation of passengers and caused smoke to billow throughout a BART station. The fire appears to have been caused by a piece of propulsion equipment that overheated below the tracks, Trost told the Contra Costa Times (http://bit.ly/166JGSb).

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Associated Press Writer Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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