Prompted by the October deaths of two BART workers in Walnut Creek and new "urgent" recommendations by federal investigators, the head of the Federal Transit Administration pledged Thursday to issue new rail worker safety guidelines across the country by the end of the year.
The move came hours after the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board issued two "urgent" safety recommendations to beef up worker safety requirements and eliminate track access policies that place accountability for safety solely on ground workers, as BART's now-defunct "simple approval" policy once did.
"The FTA shares the (NTSB's) sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the safety of transit workers and passengers at BART and around the country," Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said Thursday in a statement. "We are currently evaluating the NTSB's recommendations. Before the end of this year, we will issue new safety-related guidelines to all rail transit agencies, including BART."
A BART employee and contractor were inspecting track between the Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations on Oct. 19 -- during the latest strike -- when they were hit and killed by a train operated by a manager receiving driver training. An autopsy report revealed last week that the two men failed to follow BART safety rules then in place that required one person to act as a lookout while working on the tracks.
The train hit both men from behind, according to the coroner's report.
Since the workers' deaths, BART eliminated the controversial "simple approval" policy and now "single-tracks" trains around work areas at slow speeds. BART, which spent years fighting to keep simple approval despite state regulators' concerns, seeks a permanent resolution to trackway access issues.
In her sweeping recommendation Wednesday, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman urged the FTA to require extra layers of protection for wayside workers, such as improved technology monitoring train locations, wearable electronic alert devices and "shunts," a safety device attached to tracks that signals oncoming trains to stop.
She also recommended the elimination of any work for which workers must gain access to the tracks and take all responsibility for avoiding oncoming trains.
"Having redundant protection measures in place for track workers is not only a best practice but common sense," Hersman wrote. "A positive safety culture is not a solo act -- everyone needs to look out for each other."
A BART spokeswoman Thursday said officials were reviewing the recommendations but offered no comment.
Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents rail workers for BART, released a statement late Thursday praising the recommendations
"We welcome the NTSB's move to ensure that BART and similar transit agencies adopt rules that would ensure the safety of the hard-working men and women who transport hundreds of thousands of riders each day," said Saul Almanza, a 17-year BART employee who trains workers on trackway safety procedures and protocols, in the statement. "Workers at BART have repeatedly raised concerns about the procedure known as 'simple approval' and how it contributed to the tragic and unnecessary deaths of four trackway personnel."
The NTSB is still investigating the fatal Oct. 19 accident, and no probable cause has been determined. But Hersman's letter provided some new details about the accident.
Hersman wrote that on Oct. 18, the day before the accident, a "minor defect" was noted on one of the two tracks between Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill stations, and that two employees planned to take measurements there.
Hersman explained in her letter that BART's automatic train control system "is designed to maintain train separation but does not provide redundant protection."
At time of accident, two trains were operating on the entire system, both for maintenance and training purposes. Six workers were on the train that hit the men -- an operator/trainer/supervisor, two student train operators and three equipment maintenance employees, she wrote.
"(The BART accident) has re-energized concerns about the need for improved roadway worker protection in the rail transit industry," she wrote.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.