OAKLAND -- In a move expected to cause longer and more frequent train delays for commuters, BART said Thursday it will eliminate the controversial practice of making track workers largely responsible for their own safety after two employees were struck and killed by a train Saturday.
BART assistant general manager Paul Oversier told the BART Board of Directors the decision to eliminate "simple approval" was made in the "last 48 hours" and after the transit agency immediately suspended the practice when 58-year-old Christopher Sheppard -- a BART employee -- and 66-year-old rail consultant Laurence Daniels were killed Saturday inspecting a reported "dip" in the track between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations.
Trains will now have to be routed around, or "single-tracked," through work sites, and speeds reduced to a maximum of 25 mph in those areas. Nighttime construction work will likely increase, too, Oversier told the board, saying the changes will create a "degradation in service" for commuters.
The announcement came after a passionate exchange among labor unions, the public and the board during a hearing where the directors passed resolutions honoring the two men. Critics blamed the agency and board for their deaths and called the resolutions "offensive."
The elimination of "simple approval" will create a logistics nightmare for BART, which had relied on the system "hundreds of times a month" to perform routine maintenance on its 104 miles of track, Oversier said. Under that policy, workers would communicate their position over the radio but then be largely on their own while working on the tracks. Workers would work in pairs, with one acting as the lookout.
"Given the circumstances, it has to be done," Oversier said, but it will create a challenge on how to "preserve reliability."
"Unless something else is put in, that's going to be an enormous, herculean task trying to go ahead and schedule routine activities that otherwise would have been off the radar," Oversier said. "It's gonna have one heck of an impact."
The only other process to enter wayside, the area along BART's tracks, is through "work orders" that are planned six weeks in advance and require significant safety assurances by BART to keep trains away from the construction area. In the past, those were solely for large-scale construction projects.
"I don't want to raise alarm bells with you, but I want you to be aware of the complexity and multiplicity of the trade-offs we have to consider on how we go forward," Oversier told the board. Simple approval was "the primary mechanism that people use for traveling by foot along the trackway."
Despite those difficulties, the rules and regulations surrounding the practice -- which has been around for BART's 41 years of existence -- had become too restrictive, he said. Oversier called simple approval "the No. 1 issue surrounding this incident."
Directors applauded the decision and others asked whether there were technology improvements that could help in the future, such as arm bands that alert workers of an oncoming train.
In 2008, after BART worker James Strickland was hit and killed by a train while working under simple approval, the agency looked into such technology, Oversier said.
"At the time, the decision was made that we didn't think it would add to the level of safety that existed then," the assistant general manager said, adding improved technology could change that decision.
Directors also expressed concerns over a prolonged investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Trustee James Fang worried the board would suffer public criticism similar to when it stayed mum during investigations following the officer-involved shooting of Oscar Grant.
"It compounded the situation of how people, or certain elements, perceived BART," Fang said, urging the agency to conduct its own independent investigation.
The national president of one of BART's largest unions called for a criminal investigation Wednesday into BART's decision to allow a trainee to operate the train that struck the two men during Saturday's strike. BART police Chief Kenton Rainey said it was too early to determine whether his department would pursue such a case, as the National Transportation Safety Board continues its probe.
"We'll wait to hear from (the NTSB) and then go from there," he said.
"This was no accident," an emotional ATU 1555 president Antonette Bryant told the board, surrounded by labor representatives. "We told everyone what would happen if untrained people were operating a train. ... These two men should be with us."
Director Gail Murray, who asked for the resolutions to be added to the agenda, told the crowd, which attempted to shout her down: "This should be their time. This was done to memorialize their passing."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.