SAN FRANCISCO -- BART workers applauded the historic new rail worker safety rules passed Thursday by a state regulator, but warned the that transit agency can't meet one of the emergency interim requirements -- three-way radio communication before trains enter work zones.
After five years of meetings, drafts and discussion, the California Public Utilities Commission board passed the rail safety regulations, the most comprehensive transit safety rules in the nation. Trustees cited the increased radio requirement as pivotal in wake of the Oct. 19 BART accident that killed two track inspectors on the tracks near Walnut Creek.
"It's a critical, common-sense new requirement that can save lives," Commissioner Mark Ferron said of the interim rule change.
However, BART employees said they work with two-way radios and that significant "dead spots" hamper their effectiveness.
"It won't work -- not all of BART is reachable by radio," said a BART employee who wished to remain anonymous, fearing for his job. "The BART radio system is a complex arrangement of repeaters, with significant timing requirements. You just can't throw up a tower anywhere without recalibrating the whole system."
The correct solution, he said, is to put up a dozen new towers at one time, and then recalibrate. "It's not cheap, but neither are deaths."
Employees said areas between Castro Valley and West Dublin have no radio coverage; the same goes for a section between Daly City and Balboa Park (including a bridge over city streets) and an area just north of South Hayward. There are also numerous dead zones in the Richmond, Concord and Hayward yards, they said.
One worker told a story about a track worker who, before cellphones, could not connect with central command by radio and had to walk to a pay phone in Castro Valley.
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the radio dead spots are sporadic and typical of the technology, and can be fixed with tweaks.
"You have to go out and adjust radios. They need tuning," she said. "That's just the nature of radios in general."
The transit agency is working on a draft implementation plan to incorporate the new rules, many of which they already follow. "We're fully cooperative and supportive and we're going to be able to follow all the new rules," Trost said.
The agency has already ordered maintenance vehicle backup alarms, a new requirement, as well as backup cameras and strobe warning lights, Trost said.
The PUC also requires the dozen rail transit agencies it oversees to test new train-warning technology within a year, and to implement systems within four years. BART had balked at such technology in the past, saying it jeopardizes workers' vigilance while on the tracks.
BART formed a technology committee after the 2008 death of worker James Strickland. It researched, and rejected, armbands -- those worn by Los Angeles Metro Rail employees that alert ground workers to oncoming trains, Trost said.
Recently, BART reached out to Atlanta's MARTA transit asking for a briefing on the TrackSafe rail worker safety technology that agency began testing last year, Trost said. TrackSafe is manufactured by Bombardier Transportation, the same company BART has agreed to pay more than $1 billion for its fleet of new cars.
The emergency interim rules were added only in the last two weeks after the PUC realized the two men who died on BART tracks Oct. 19 would not have been saved under proposed regulations.
The National Transportation Safety Board continues investigating the accident, and the PUC will revisit the interim rules once that federal report is completed.
"Unfortunately, too often it takes a tragedy to find out where the gaps are," PUC Commissioner Michel Florio said. "I look forward to a situation where there are rules to prevent accidents rather than respond to accidents."
Board President Michael Peevey said it was "just unbelievable" BART's "simple approval" practice, which allowed ground workers on the tracks while oncoming trains passed at full speed, persisted until last week.
Saul Almanza, a BART safety trainer and SEIU 1021 vice president, echoed what the transit agency has said -- the new rules will affect on-time train performance.
"It's a sacrifice we all have to bear to keep workers and passengers safe," Almanza said. "It's something we'll all have to get used to: labor, management and riders."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.