The fatal accident that killed two BART workers Saturday happened when a supervisor was teaching two trainees to drive trains during the strike, a federal transportation official said Tuesday.
Despite applying a brake, the four-car train going at least 60 mph struck and killed 58-year-old Christopher Sheppard, a BART employee, and 66-year-old Laurence Daniels, a rail consultant, who were working under a controversial policy that makes them responsible for their own safety on the tracks.
This finding from the National Transportation Safety Board contradicts BART's earlier claims that no employees were being trained during the first two days of the work stoppage and that the accident happened when a manager was returning from dropping off vandalized cars.
The NTSB says the supervisor and one trainee were in the cab at the time of the accident with "direct supervision," while four other employees rode in the passenger compartment.
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost told this newspaper Friday that trainees were not operating trains on the first day of the strike, which began Friday and ended Tuesday morning.
"Obviously, it sounds like some training took place on Saturday," Trost said Tuesday. She would not elaborate on Saturday's training because of the investigation.
The train, headed for Concord along the Pittsburg-Bay Point line, hit the two men between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations as they were inspecting a reported "dip" in the rail, officials said.
NTSB Investigator in Charge Jim Southworth said his agency found flat spots on the rear car wheels, indicating an "application of brakes prior to striking" and that the lights, horn and brakes were all working.
Investigators plan to re-enact the accident Wednesday, meaning commuters will need to use a bus bridge between the Lafayette and Pleasant Hill stations from noon to 3:30 p.m. while those stations are closed.
"Our biggest hope is to figure out how to prevent this from happening ever again, not just on BART but on any transportation system," Southworth said.
He confirmed that the two men at 1:05 p.m. Saturday requested "simple approval," which requires one man to work while the other acts as a lookout.
"Personnel accessing trackways or restricted areas under Simple Approval are individually responsible for providing their own protection," according to the operations handbook.
"At grade only not inclusive of any aerial structures or bridges and we will provide our own protection and not interfere with mainline or yard operation. Expect movement of on rail vehicles at any time or any track in any direction and understand that the third rail is hot," one of the men announced over the radio, as required by the handbook.
As part of the approval process, central command, stationed out of the Lake Merritt station, sends an automated message to train operators alerting them to workers on the "wayside," or along the tracks. An automated message alerted the trains Saturday that no workers were wayside; however a human voice quickly corrected the false information and relayed that workers were, indeed, present between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations.
Train controllers who issue such warnings are part of the AFSCME union and were honoring the strike Saturday, so central command had replacement dispatchers. The warning process was initiated following the 2008 death of James Strickland, 44, of Concord, who was killed as he inspected the tracks north of the Pleasant Hill station.
State safety regulators fined BART $28,685 for allowing unsafe work conditions that played a role in Strickland's death and the agency added new safety requirements. The agency appealed the violation notices.
BART maintained that "simple approval" kept inspectors vigilant, with their heads on a swivel looking for oncoming trains. The agency's safety department concluded the likeliest cause of Strickland's death was failure to look both ways for trains, but foliage also obscured views from the track.
Unions have long expressed concerns over the protocol, but also spent the days before the strike warning management not to allow managers to operate trains in the event of a strike.
"Trains are quiet. It's feasible they did not see or hear them," said Chris Finn, a train operator and ATU 1555 negotiator. "They shouldn't have been put in that position."
He questioned whether a "trainee" would understand the warnings issued of personnel wayside.
Workers must follow the "15 Second Rule," where they can "detect an approaching train or on-rail equipment with sufficient time to move to a pre-determined location, clear of track," according to the operations handbook. Meanwhile, train operators must honk their horns when they near the workers and receive a wave acknowledging the train, but Southworth acknowledged they are not required to slow.
Staff writers Katie Nelson and David DeBolt contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.