Categories: Bay Area Transit

Union calls for criminal probe of transit deaths

The head of a Northern California transit workers union on Thursday called for a criminal investigation into the deaths of two Bay Area Rapid Transit track inspectors who were struck by a train while BART workers were on strike.

George Popyack, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 57, called for law enforcement involvement in the probe of the Oct. 19 accident while testifying at a legislative committee hearing in San Francisco. The state Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment convened the meeting to investigate the accident. Popyack didn't say whether anyone specifically should be targeted for possible criminal charges.

Much of the focus on the accident centers on the transit agency's “simple approval” policy that makes workers completely responsible for their safety while working on the tracks.

The California Department of Occupational Safety and Health found that policy contributed to the death of track inspector James Strickland in 2008 when it issued BART four citations and fined it $28,000. BART has been appealing those citations since and has not had to scrap or dramatically alter the policy until the case is resolved. After Strickland's death, BART did require that a minimum of two workers attend to problems on the track, with one acting as a lookout.

Popyack said that the task the two workers were undertaking — inspecting a dip in the rail — when they were killed required the attention of both and neither could watch for trains. He blamed the “simple approval” policy, which he said BART knew put workers in danger and that's why criminal charges should be considered.

Since the latest accident, BART has temporarily suspended the “simple approval” policy while it works on updating its safety procedures and now requires three-way communications between train drivers, controllers in Oakland and workers on the track. Trains are also now required to slow down or stop when they approach work zones.

“I am deeply troubled that this policy wasn't changed earlier,” said Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, the chair of the labor committee.

Cal OSHA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the deaths of the two inspectors, Christopher Sheppard, 58, and Laurence Daniels, 66.

Either agency can refer the case to prosecutors for possible criminal charges. Cal OSHA and NTSB officials declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

Jeff Lau, BART's chief safety officer, told the Assembly committee in a prepared statement that NTSB officials have directed BART to refrain from discussing specifics about the accident.

Workers took to the picket lines for four days last month, angering commuters. Unions approved a new four-year contract last week. BART's board of directors still needs to vote on the deal at its next meeting, which the agency said would happen “soon.”

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