Two workers killed by BART train the district was using on a "training run," despite safety warnings from the striking unions
On Oct. 19, the second day of a BART strike that hobbled the Bay Area transportation system, two BART workers were struck and killed by a northbound train in Walnut Creek, adding a tragic and surreal element to the charged blame-games that have characterized this labor impasse.
Both the striking unions and BART management struck respectful tones following the accident, even as sources privately told journalists that the district may have been secretly training replacement drivers aboard the ill-fated train to offer limited service during the strike, a charge first printed by the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 21.
NTSB investigator in charge James Southworth confirmed at a press conference on the afternoon of Oct. 21 that the train was "in operation for training and maintenance purposes," and that two of the six people on board were trainees, one of whom was driving at the time of the accident, although the train was in automatic, not manual, mode.
Asked whether the drivers had their safety certification, Southworth said, "the training is part of the certification process," and refused to elaborate further. He said the train was going 60-70 miles per hour at the time, and it attempted an emergency stop. Just hours after the NTSB press conference, BART reached a tentative deal with its unions, ending the strike.
The district's decision to run the trains without their regular operators was against the safety advice of the three striking unions, one of whom — Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 — even filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent BART from doing so.
A helmet at the scene of the crash, which a source says is possibly from one of the workers fatally struck.
"The use of uncertified training personnel to provide uncertified managers with a crash course in how to operate BART trains also presents a public safety issue," the union's attorneys wrote in the suit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Oct. 7.
BART workers undergo 15 weeks of safety training every three years, the suit said, training that saves lives. "All three of us, time and time again, told BART it would be unsafe to operate the system without trained current personnel," SEIU Local 1021 Political Director Chris Daly told the Guardian.
BART officials have avoided directly answering the question about whether Saturday's accident involved a training run, saying only that the train was on a "maintenance run," initially reporting it was on its way to Richmond Station for graffiti removal and that an experienced driver was at the helm.
"The Board of Directors would need to approve limited passenger train service and at no point was this on an agenda to take up. The Board President has made comments saying it would be a decision for the board and that they had no plans to take up that issue at this time," BART spokesperson Alicia Trost told the Guardian by email when we asked whether managers aboard the train were being trained to drive it, before the NTSB press conference, ignoring follow-up questions seeking a more direct answer.
When we asked BART Board President Tom Radulovich about the issue, he told us, "We were all told that BART would be running infrequent maintenance or inspection trains during the strike, in part to keep the system ready for re-start when workers return. Running passenger trains during a strike would be a decision for the Board, and we haven't been asked to approve that."
Daly stopped short of charging BART with compromising safety to train replacement workers, but he told us that union members have heard from managers for weeks that the district was considering operating with replacement drivers. And he said it "would fit BART management's entire campaign to bust the unions."