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Controversial safety protocol questioned after fatal BART accident

Perhaps the biggest transportation-related news here in Oakland of late is the recent train accident that killed two people. The two victims, an employee of Bay Area Rapid Transit and a contractor, were struck by a train traveling at least 60 miles per hour while they were inspecting a section of track.

The fatal train accident is particularly troubling for two reasons. First, it occurred during a transit strike; which means that normal BART operators would not have been controlling the trains. Second, the two workers were killed while inspecting the tracks under a controversial "simple approval" policy. This policy allows trains to run normally while essentially making workers entirely responsible for their own safety.

According to news reports, a more stringent safety measure would be to implement a "work order," which is a protocol usually reserved for larger maintenance work and construction projects. During work orders, BART trains may be held, diverted or slowed down to better ensure safety in the designated work area.

The two men were inspecting a "dip" in the tracks. Under simple approval protocol, one of the men was supposed to be at least five feet away from the tracks and acting as a lookout for trains. It is not known why both men were simultaneously standing in the train's path.

Just after the fatal accident, BART officials sent an interoffice memo noting that simple approvals have been indefinitely prohibited. The memo reads: "Effective immediately, simple approvals are not authorized. All access to right of way shall be accomplished with a work area that provides the crew protection from train movement."

To be sure, a fatal accident like this one inevitably raises questions. For starters, why were transportation officials still allowing the use of simple approval? News reports say that another BART worker was killed in 2008 while operating under this protocol.

Some may also be wondering if the accident could have been prevented had the train been under the control of a more experienced operator. Certainly, these and other questions will be debated in the coming weeks and months as the accident investigation continues.

 

Source: San Jose Mercury News, "BART suspends 'simple approval' practice after fatal accident," Matthias Gafni, Oct. 23, 2013

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