BART radio dispatches reveal communication errors on day of fatal strike

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(Photo: John Morgan, released under Creative Commons | Remixed by The Desk)

(Photo: John Morgan, released under Creative Commons | Remixed by The Desk)

Train operators and a central dispatcher had trouble communicating with each other the day two Bay Area Rapid Transit employees were fatally struck by an oncoming train two weeks ago, new audio recordings reveal.

Fourteen hours of BART radio transmissions obtained and reviewed by The Desk reveal replacement train operators had difficulty understanding commands given by a radio dispatcher at BART’s Oakland, California communications center. The recordings also reveal the dispatcher, known as a “train controller,” made several erroneous radio transmissions to crews operating BART trains.

Both the train operators and the train controller had been members of BART’s management team replacing union workers who were engaged in a labor dispute with the transit system.

The recordings from October 19, excerpts of which are being released publicly for the first time by The Desk, reveal at least two BART trains — “Train 961” and “Train 963” — were operating on the tracks in the hours leading up to the fatal incident. Both trains were operated by BART managers conducting training exercises: Train 961 was tasked to run along a stretch of BART track between the city of San Francisco and various stops along the Richmond line, while Train 963 was asked to conduct various runs on both the Dublin/Pleasanton and Pittsburg/Bay Point lines.

Train operations had been running smoothly in the early morning hours. A dispatch at 2:58 a.m. showed communications between BART’s Oakland communications center and Train 963 was clearly received:

Problems began shortly after 6 a.m. when morning crews replaced both the overnight train controller and both train operators. Dispatch recordings reveal several instances where BART’s train controller and the two train operators failed to clearly communicate work orders:

Two additional recordings reveal communication problems between BART’s controller and Train 963. In one recording, Train 963 can be heard calling for the BART controller three times, with two dispatches from the train going unreturned for unknown reasons.

A recording released the day of the incident shows BART initially failed to communicate to its trains that a two-man maintenance crew was working on a stretch of track near Walnut Creek, California. An automated recording claiming that no personnel were working on the tracks at the time was followed up with a dispatch correcting the information.

Shortly after 1:55 p.m., Train 963 would fatally strike both BART maintenance workers, identified as employee Christopher Sheppard and contractor Laurence Daniels. Both workers died from blunt force injuries, the Contra Costa County coroner would later determine. Sheppard and Daniels had been given “simple approval” to inspect a reported “dip” in a stretch of track near Walnut Creek; both men were responsible for their own safety during the inspection (BART has since abandoned its use of “simple approval” work orders).

The dispatch recordings raise serious concerns about the communication skill of BART’s personnel working that day. Patricia Schuchardt, president of one of the unions representing striking BART workers, wrote days after the incident that BART compromised worker safety when the transit agency expedited training for managers temporarily replacing union employees.

“We are deeply concerned for passenger and public safety as BART management personnel are believed to be preparing to perform job duties of experienced train controllers in the event of a strike,” Schuchardt wrote in an editorial for the Oakland Tribune. “Allowing management to step in and attempt to do the job of train controllers jeopardizes the safety of all BART passengers and equipment.”

The recordings also renew concerns about the effectiveness and integrity of BART’s two-way radio system. Employees have complained that BART’s radio system can’t reach trains in certain areas where BART operates. A BART spokeswoman told the Contra Costa Times that issues with BART’s radio systems can be fixed with “tweaks,” but it’s unclear how often BART maintains its radios.

When asked for comment about the dispatches made on October 19, BART referred The Desk to the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency currently investigating the fatal strike.

The NTSB did not return multiple inquiries from The Desk for comment, but did say at a press conference that BART’s radio dispatcher and both train operators were among those being interviewed as part of their investigation. NTSB investigator Jim Southworth said radio transmissions leading up to and immediately after the incident would be reviewed, though it is not clear how extensive the agency’s review of radio dispatches from that day will be.

The NTSB is expected to issue a preliminary report on the incident within the next six months, with a full and final detailed report within a year. The NTSB is conducting its investigation with the cooperation of state and federal safety agencies.

Striking BART workers retuned to work two days after the fatal accident after the transit agency reached a tentative agreement with labor unions representing most BART employees, including unions that represented employees whose positions had been temporarily replaced by BART managers on the day of the incident. On Saturday, the tentative agreement that ended the strike was approved by the two unions; the BART board must still vote on the contract before it is formally ratified.

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a contract approved by BART unions representing employees had been formally ratified; the contract must still be approved by BART’s Board of Directors.