FairWarining Investigates

For Big Railroads, a Carload of Whistleblower Complaints

Mike Elliott

Mike Elliott, a former BNSF employee who sued the railroad for retaliation. (Photo by Michael Dwass)

As both a veteran railroad worker and union official responsible for safety, Mike Elliott became alarmed when he learned of trouble-plagued train signals in his home state of Washington.

Signals, he said, at times would inexplicably switch from red to yellow to green – potentially creating confusion that could lead to a crash. Elliott raised that and other signal issues repeatedly with his managers at BNSF Railway Co. But eventually, Elliott concluded that “these guys are running me around in circles.”

So Elliott, 57, of Tacoma, Wash., pressed his concerns with the Federal Railroad Administration, summarizing the matter in a January 2011 letter. The FRA investigated, and discovered 357 safety violations, including 112 signal system defects.

Speaking up for safety, though, only made matters worse for Elliott at BNSF, where he already had clashed with managers. Within weeks the company fired Elliott from his job as a locomotive engineer – an act that a federal jury this summer ruled was illegal retaliation by BNSF against a whistleblower.

The June 30 decision by the Tacoma jury, which awarded Elliott $1.25 million but is being appealed, spotlights the unjust punishment that critics say sometimes is meted out to railroad workers who report injuries or safety problems. These critics, including plaintiff lawyers and union officials, along with others who have examined railroad practices, say the harsh treatment reflects old, hard-line management tactics that persist in corners of the industry.

Under the 22 federal whistleblower laws administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, American workers who disclose hazards or engage in other “protected activity” are shielded against retaliation by their employers. The protected activities vary by industry, but include reporting injuries, disclosing the misuse of public funds and refusing to perform dangerous tasks that would violate safety rules. OSHA protection covers, among many others, truck drivers, public transit employees, nuclear plant operators and, since 2007, railroad workers. Yet despite the broad safeguards for railroaders – or perhaps partly because of them – complaints of illegal retaliation abound in the industry.

From October 2007 through June 2015, OSHA figures show, railroad workers filed more than 2,000 retaliation complaints, although the pace has slowed lately. Among the top 10 targets of complaints over the nearly eight-year period, seven were railroads, led by the two largest U.S. railroads, BNSF (409 complaints) and Union Pacific (360).

OSHA investigators and Labor Department administrative law judges repeatedly have upheld complaints against the railroads, more than half of which involve illegal retaliation against workers who report personal injuries.

In one such case an administrative law judge in 2013 ruled against Union Pacific, declaring: “The actions by Union Pacific have been so egregious in this case, and Union Pacific has been so openly blatant in ignoring the provisions of [federal law], that I find punitive damages are necessary to ensure that this reprehensible conduct is not repeated.”

retaliation complaintsIn January of that year, BNSF, without admitting wrongdoing, signed an unprecedented accord with OSHA after the federal agency alleged that several of the company’s policies discriminated against injured employees. Among other things, the accord eliminated giving demerit points to workers who report injuries.

At the time, OSHA’s chief, David Michaels, said in a statement that the accord “sets the tone for other railroad employers throughout the U.S. to take steps to ensure that their workers are not harassed, intimidated or terminated, in whole or part, for reporting workplace injuries.”

Safety “a top priority”

Officials of the Association of American Railroads, the leading industry group, declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, the AAR issued a brief statement saying, “The safety of employees and communities along the nation’s 140,000-mile rail network remains a top priority for the entire industry and is taken very seriously.”

Union Pacific also refused interview requests. So did BNSF, which was created by the 1995 merger of Burlington Northern Inc. and Santa Fe Pacific Corp., and is now a unit of investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. However, in a prepared statement after the jury decision in the Elliott case, BNSF said it “is proud of its safety culture and retaliation against safety complaints is contrary to how we operate and the training our people receive.” The company added that Elliott “was dismissed for unrelated rules violations.”

(On Oct. 1, the federal judge who heard Elliott’s case, Ronald B. Leighton, a Republican appointed by George W. Bush, rejected BNSF’s motion for a new trial. He ruled that the disciplinary proceedings against the former employee were “seriously flawed” and that BNSF executives “displayed personal animosity against Mr. Elliott.”)

Joseph SzaboThe alleged violations defy a key intent of federal whistleblower laws: to encourage employees who discover possible hazards to come forward before an accident happens. The potential value of such an early warning system is underscored by the deadly passenger rail accidents and oil train wrecks in recent years.

Joseph C. Szabo, who headed the FRA from 2009 until this January, said industry supervisors often are under “immense pressure” to curb costs by moving trains quickly out of rail yards. That, in turn, translates into pressure on rank-and-file workers “to ignore safety protocols and to just get the damn train out of town.” That’s why, Szabo said, it’s “critically important” that railroad workers are “very comfortable in doing the right thing without any fear of retribution.”

Award is canceled

Likewise, safety advocates say, the ability of workers to report injuries without jeopardizing their livelihoods is crucial in a field with many hazardous jobs. Railroads have relatively high rates of on-the-job fatalities – although the toll has fallen dramatically over the last three decades. What’s more, injury totals may be substantially higher than reported. In 2012, amid widespread suspicion that railroads were undercounting injuries, in part by pressuring workers not to report them, the industry dropped its 99-year-old annual Harriman safety award, which was largely based on employee injury reports.

Norfolk Southern, which had won Harriman safety “gold award” 23 years in a row before the honor was scrapped, was the target of 247 whistleblower complaints during the nearly eight-year period tracked. That was the fifth-highest total among all U.S. employers.

Railroad whistleblowers under federal law must first file complaints with OSHA; they can pursue their cases through conclusion with the agency or, if their issues haven’t been resolved, after 120 days they can opt out and take their cases to court.

mike koziara quotebox-01In fact, both OSHA and federal juries over the past year have issued a string of big decisions against railroads in cases brought by whistleblowers, although the companies have appealed many of the rulings. Those whistleblowers include:

–Mike Koziara, 55, who in March won an award of $425,725 after a federal jury found that BNSF illegally fired him for reporting an on-the-job injury.

In September 2010, Koziara, a 32-year veteran of the company, was a section foreman, a job that put him in charge of track maintenance for a 40-mile stretch of rail along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. The day he was hurt, Koziara was leading a group of employees tasked with removing large, wooden planks from a road crossing in East Winona, Wis., when he was struck in the left ankle by a 1,200-pound plank.

“It hurt,” Koziara said, but he didn’t think it was serious.

Three days later, after the 72-hour period allowed for reporting injuries was over, he went to see his doctor for a physical. There, she took one look at his leg and sent him for an X-ray. The results showed Koziara had a cracked tibia, or shinbone.

“I just don’t get the railroads”

He reported the injury to BNSF the next day. A few days later, the company charged him with failing to be “alert and attentive.” As punishment, he was given a 30-day suspension and a one-year probation. But it didn’t stop there.

James WhiteheadWhile the railroad investigated Koziara’s injury, it learned that he recently had given about 20 used rail ties to a local farmer. Koziara maintains he had gotten permission to take some ties – and that it otherwise would have cost the railroad money to dispose of used ties – but BNSF charged him with theft. He was fired on Nov. 9, exactly two months after he was injured.

“I don’t know why they’re so hard on their employees,” said Koziara, who is now retired. “They’ll get more out of us if they were just better to us. I just don’t get the railroads at all.”

–Steven Annucci, a coach cleaner for Metro-North Commuter Railroad. Last December OSHA found that he should receive $250,000 in punitive damages, the maximum permitted in a railroad retaliation case.

Annucci hurt his knee in November 2011, when he tripped on a wooden board sticking up about six inches above a paved walkway in a train yard in Stamford, Conn. General Foreman Prena Beliveau drove Annucci to the hospital. On the way there, Annucci secretly recorded their conversation.

According to OSHA, Beliveau told Annucci that if you have an injury on your record at Metro-North you’re not going to move up — you’re going to be a car cleaner for the rest of your career. Beliveau also said everybody at Metro-North who gets hurt is written up for safety.

Animus is clear

Annucci reported the injury anyway. A couple weeks later, Metro-North formally reprimanded him for safety violations, although he kept his job. A year later Annucci was charged with failing to properly clean vomit from a train car, and was reprimanded again. In its December ruling, OSHA found that “animus is clear in this case” and ordered Metro-North to pay Annucci attorney’s fees and $10,000 in compensatory damages, along with the punitive damages.

–Union Pacific apprentice machinist Brian Petersen, 31, who was fired after a co-worker drove over his feet in the parking lot of a train yard in North Platte, Neb.. In a pair of rulings last November and February, the railroad was ordered to pay Petersen more than $400,000 in back pay, attorney fees and damages. In the spring, the two sides reached a confidential settlement.

The case stemmed from a 2009 accident. Petersen claimed he was leaning against his car, checking his cell phone for messages, when a colleague roared into the space next to him. Union Pacific concluded that Petersen was inattentive and careless, then fired him a few days later when he was seen standing on some motors to write down their serial numbers when he should have been using a ladder.

Key Laws Protecting Railroad WorkersThe administrative law judge who considered the case in 2013 – the one who condemned Union Pacific for “egregious” actions – said the rules the company charged Petersen with breaking “are written in such a manner that anyone who is injured and reports it will have violated at least a part of one or more of them.”

Experts often trace railroad managers’ behavior to the way the industry emerged in the mid-19th century. Back then, many railroad officials came from the officer ranks of the Civil War armies. “It was traditionally an industry in which the boss is the absolute boss … all the way up the hierarchy. You don’t question the boss’ authority,” said historian Maury Klein, the author of a half-dozen books on railroads.

Paramilitary structure

Szabo, the former FRA chief, said railroads have embraced more enlightened practices over the past decade or so, but management still has elements of “a paramilitary structure, very much command and control.”

To this day, railroads remain discipline-minded. Operating and safety manuals run hundreds of pages. Suspected violators, including workers who get hurt, face internal investigations.

Critics still echo Congressional investigators who in 2007 found that railroad companies, along with federal regulators, are “more oriented toward assigning blame to a single individual, without a thorough examination of the underlying causes that led that single individual to commit an error.”

In part, the hard-nosed culture reflects an effort to cope with the inherent dangers of rail transportation. “Small screw-ups can sometimes lead to somebody getting killed,” said Mark Aldrich, author of the 2006 book, “Death Rode the Rails.”

Safety has improved substantially in recent decades, Aldrich and other experts say, but the pressure on middle-managers to move as quickly as possible while also holding injuries to a minimum still creates incentives to ignore or conceal mishaps. “I don’t think this is a problem that’s going to go away,” Aldrich said.

Defenders of the industry say the volume of whistleblower cases isn’t a good barometer of actual wrongdoing because the discipline in dispute often stems from violations by the employees that are completely unrelated to their injuries.

maury-klein-quotebox“In many cases, the [employee’s] argument is simply, ‘Well, the railroad managers didn’t like the fact that I reported my injury so they were looking for an excuse to get me,” said James Whitehead, a management lawyer who has represented railroads and who teaches employment law at the University of Chicago.

Experts say much of the worker litigiousness stems from a 1908 law that excluded railroad employees from state workers compensation systems. Instead, it required them to go to court if they wanted to seek compensation for on-the-job injuries. That created a strong market for personal injury attorneys who specialize in railroad litigation. And those lawyers were quick to file whistleblower complaints after Congress in 2007 and 2008 modified the Federal Railroad Safety Act, adding anti-retaliation measures for rail workers.

As a result of those measures, railroad employees often have a lighter burden of proof when they pursue retaliation claims than do workers in other fields. Likewise, railroad employees often have rights other workers lack, such as the ability to file complaints over alleged retaliation due to reporting personal injuries. They also can take claims to federal court if their cases aren’t resolved within 210 days – a prospect that railroads often dread. “There can be a lot of emotion in these cases, and they can be challenging cases to defend” when they go before a jury, Whitehead said.

Tensions smolder

Mike Elliott’s case reflects the workplace tensions that sometimes smolder in the railroad industry. The beginning of the end for Elliott at BNSF came in March 2011, when he was chairman of the Washington legislative board of his union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Elliott, an ex-Marine, got into a parking lot scuffle with Dennis Kautzmann, a supervisor who Elliott claimed harassed him for several years due to his safety advocacy. The parking lot incident, Elliott’s lawyers argued in their successful federal lawsuit, was instigated as part of a scheme by BNSF managers to get Elliott fired because he triggered the federal safety investigation. They said Kautzmann had no other reason, after Elliott had clocked out for the day, for pursuing him from a BNSF building into the parking lot. (In his Oct. 1 ruling rejecting a new trial, Judge Leighton agreed that Kautzmann “staged” the conflict.)

Kautzmann, in a memo describing the March 2011 confrontation, said he followed Elliott into the parking lot simply to make sure Elliott understood the details about an upcoming engineer recertification evaluation. He said he brought along another BNSF employee “to assist me in having Mr. Elliott stop.” Kautzmann said he then stepped in front of Elliott’s car, but Elliot didn’t stop and ran into him, throwing Kautzmann onto the car’s hood. After that, Kautzmann said, Elliott angrily got out of the car and punched him in the mouth.

Kautzmann pressed charges after the parking lot incident, and Elliott was criminally prosecuted, but a jury acquitted him. Yet BNSF conducted two internal investigations, and issued decisions both times calling for Elliott’s firing. A federal arbitration board upheld the findings.

At the federal trial challenging the firing, BNSF argued that Elliott’s firing couldn’t have been retaliation for reporting safety problems because it had little knowledge of Elliott’s recent contacts with federal regulators.

But Elliott’s lawyers presented evidence that BNSF was well aware that their client was in touch with regulators in the months before his firing. For instance, the lawyers pointed to an email about train signal problems that Elliott sent to a government official, and “cc-d” to company officials, in September 2010, several months before the federal inspections.

Despite winning the federal suit, Elliott expects a drawn-out appeals process, and he has decided against seeking reinstatement to his job at BNSF. Instead, he is working these days as a lobbyist and spokesman for the union. The role is crucial, he says, because his former co-workers at BNSF need someone to speak out about safety issues.

“The culture and the workplace fear of reporting injuries or safety problems hasn’t changed,” Elliott said. “Our members are still afraid.”

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15 comments to “For Big Railroads, a Carload of Whistleblower Complaints”

  1. Alan Kandel

    John, if you happen to see this comment, I am curious about how it is that, if you were “warned in 1998 and 1999 about a couple situations at that locations showing false indications” (and I’m not going to ask by whom you were warned for reasons not too difficult to imagine), what was done in response?

    Were there procedures followed to test for signal integrity to see if it could be established if, in fact, false indications (by false indications I presume you mean “false clear” indications) were occurring? Also, if such was the case, these “false indications” I assume needed to be reported to the Federal Railroad Administration or another similar regulating body. Were they? It sounds suspect and serious enough to warrant reporting.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that the information you shared here could have been instrumental in the way the National Transportation Safety Board conducted its investigation and in terms of it rendering its decision regarding the cause or causes of this collision.

  2. John Faggot

    That signal at CP Topanga has always been a problem for us SP-UP Engineers. I was warned in 1998 and 1999 about a couple situations at that locations showing false indications.

  3. janet bowie

    Mr.SZABO please read my comment on all the SITTING empty railcars and rail-tanks the homeless now occupy..the ones that BNSF are in such a hurry to move..the ones last inspected 4 years ago so, therefor cannot move until inspection;due 2022 !

  4. janet bowie

    FYI..BNSF RRD has20? or more empty?railcars..mostly those that obviosly transported hazardous chemicals..,highly flamable..that are just sitting on sidebar(?)like tracks because their last inspection(only done every TEN YEARS !!) was in 2012. Well,here in tacoma,wa..especially at these cars location..have a bad problem with the homeless.They can no longer be by the puyallup river and now flank the emerald queen casino off portland ave..camping off the busy streets..AND using some of the open cargo railcars that are connected to these volitail cars…in laman..CAMPING..as in campfires..smoking..needles and more flame..with me ? I know one thing..ya should’t drive around with an almost empty gas can..a smoker in the summer or not ! still with me ? the containers all around this area where construction of new off/onramps..new turnlanes etc..entering and exiting the freeway..to and from emerald queen casino..are full of (propane?gas?)can you sing me a “KUMB-EYE-YA ma’ lord?”sooo,uhh..the railcars sit until due for inspection..in 2022 ? !!can we do a few 20?30?housecall type inspections so they can getta move on already?it wont be long if they havent already..thought of tapping into a fuel source rather than try to keep gathering wood..with it getting colder..i fear they may do this to maybe stay warm..a junky will gladly blowup all of the cars to keep all of them warm,ok? PS don’t bother speaking with the queen of railcar data MsWyatt..she’ll lie !

  5. janet bowie

    I suffered a severe head injury june 2013 when, during major construction,a cable snapped on the deployment of BNSF RRDS pedestrian safety gate..allowing it to free-fall with its full weight on top of my head..got myself to good sam er just a few blocks away.after 3 years of assigning new claims reps to keep me at step one,or totaly ignoring me finally ms wyatt(claims dept manager) finally comes up with rail car IDs that never existed i found out after myself..sounder..amtrak..FRA all completed researching the ID she says belonged top the train that activation all safety equipment to begin with. my claim explained how the contracted out crew set off..like..phantom train warnings from heavy track vehicles..etc.mswyatt decided..and rudely explained..how i negligently decided to race the train and timed the gate wrong (im almost 60 yrs old and was crossing tracks to see my chiropractor from earlier car crash..could barely walk..let alone run.I guess i will find out appeal procedures and maybe look into civil recovery since she ran out small claims statutes with her constant DIS-information.

  6. Alan Kandel

    Hi Barbara,

    That “the engineer and the conductor were not speaking and nothing was called out according to the passengers in cars two and three,” well, this is indeed very sad commentary and is cause for serious concern.

    As a former railroad signalman, I am fully aware that there are mandatory rules that must be followed by employees in carrying out job-related duties/functions, those in operations especially. By their actions – or maybe more accurately, a lack thereof – has the appearance that both engineer and conductor were either derelict or somewhat derelict in carrying out their duties while at the Chatsworth station, if not before.

    On a related matter, I question the way the investigation of the incident of Sept. 12, 2008 was conducted. Contradictions abound: There were conflicting reports regarding signal light color; there were contradictions regarding relayed eyewitness testimony to that effect and contradictions regarding the time at which engineer Sanchez via his wireless device received the last text-message communication from the person identified in the report as Person A (Case in point: in one part of the report, it was stated that the last text message sent from Person A’s wireless device was received on engineer Sanchez’s wireless device at 4:20:57 p.m. (page 35 of the report) and in another part of the report, it was stated that the last text message sent from Person A’s wireless device.was received on Sanchez’s wireless device at 4:21:03 p.m. (page 7 of the report) – this information based on secured Verizon Wireless records. The two times conflict. It cannot be both).

    Not ony this but called into question is the way in which post-accident signal testing was conducted.

    Here is what I mean: On footnote 46 on page 39 of the report reads: “On the day of the accident, the dispatcher had stacked the route for the westbound movement; on the day of the testing, the westbound route requests were not stacked.”

    This obviously begs the question: Why not carry out the stacking procedure on the day of the testing, the same way it was done the day of the accident? By virtue of this, one is left wondering why the “stacked” vs. “non-stacked” route requests.

    At best, it’s a conundrum. At worst, who knows?! If you do not care to weigh in further on this, I would understand.

  7. Barbara Kloster

    Hi Alan,
    One thing I forgot to mention was that the
    engineer and the conductor were not speaking
    and nothing was called out according to the passengers
    in cars two and three. I guess we are kicking a dead
    horse because I will never change the way I feel.

  8. Alan Kandel

    Hi Barbara. If you are saying what I think you are – that there exists the possibility that the signal governing movement of the Metrolink passenger train exiting the Chatsworth Station that day (in this case the westbound signal controlling the mainline – the top-most signal head at Control Point Topanga) was displaying a green light thereby indicating a clear (unoccupied) track beyond that control point, then that practically changes everything if that was indeed the case.

    Finding 5 from the National Transportation Safety Board’s Railroad Accident Report RAR-10/01 “Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With Union Pacific Train LOF65-12 Chatsworth, California September 12, 2008” clearly states: “Physical evidence, documentary and recorded data, and post-accident signal examination and testing confirm that the westbound signal at Control Point Topanga was displaying a red aspect at the time Metrolink train 111 departed Chatsworth station and as it approached and passed Control Point Topanga, and had the engineer complied with the signal indication, the accident would not have occurred” (page 65).

    My assessment: From the section of the report: “Review of Recorded Signal Data” (page 25), below is what is presented.

    “Downloaded data from Digicon event logs at the Metrolink dispatching center and signal event recorders in the field indicate that, at the time of the accident, the westbound signal at CP Topanga was displaying a red aspect (stop indication) and the dispatcher’s stacked request to clear this signal was waiting in the queue in the Digicon dispatching system” (page 25).

    Moreover, “The Metrolink dispatch center aligned the route as it was at the time of the accident and investigators used rolling shunts to simulate the movements of Metrolink train 111 and the Leesdale Local” (page 39).

    Firstly, what did the “Digicon event logs at the Metrolink dispatching center and signal event recorders in the field” show the signal aspects to be for the eastbound and westbound CP Topanga signals (both A and B heads – “A” being the signal head corresponding to the mainline track and “B” being the signal head corresponding to the siding track) from the time “Metrolink train 111 departed Chatsworth station and as it approached Control Point Topanga” before actually passing it?

    Why is this information important? Knowing what the signal aspect states (i.e., the displayed colors) of the aforementioned signals were from the time Metrolink train 111 departed the station to the time just prior to it passing the westbound CP Topanga signal is a critical piece of information, especially considering there was eyewitness testimony asserting the mainline signal was green (said signal was observed to be green by four onsite eyewitnesses – the conductor included) as the train “pulled out of the station.”

    From the report, definitively known are the signal aspects of eastbound intermediate signal 4426 immediately prior to this signal being passed by UP train LOF65-12. The GRS (General Railway Signal) sentinel signals of intermediate signal 4426 were displaying yellow-over-yellow aspects, indicating: “approach diverging.” The presumption is based on information revealed in the report, due to signals being approach lit, if there were no other trains in the circuit, signal aspects at Control Point Topanga would have been deactivated (off) and would not have activated (turned on) prior to train LOF65-12 passing intermediate signal 4426 which is situated between CP Davis and CP Topanga. However, once approaching westbound train 111 entered the block of track west of intermediate signal 4451 (situated between CP Bernson and CP Topanga), the presumption is corresponding signal aspects at CP Topanga would have been activated (lit). Prior to Metrolink train 111 passing intermediate signal 4451 and prior to Union Pacific train LOF65-12 passing intermediate signal 4426, the presumption is signals at CP Topanga would have been deactivated (unlit). Incidentally, the two eastbound signal heads are clearly visible in Figure 8 of the report on page 26 in the left-center of the photo to the left of the mainline track.

    During signal testing, “With the eastbound signal at Topanga displaying clear, investigators applied battery power to the green signal lamp of the westbound signal” (page 39). But remember, there are two signal heads for the westbound signal. So, the presumption is, it is the A head green signal lamp that is being referred to here.

    “As an additional test, investigators had the CP Topanga switch aligned for eastbound movement into the siding and locked. They then initiated a request to clear the Topanga westbound signal.” (Here again, the presumption is, it is the signal lamp in the westbound Topanga A signal head that is being referred to here). “This test was performed once with the eastbound signal displaying clear and again with the signal displaying stop” (page 40).(Since I could find no mention of which eastbound Topanga signal head – A or B – is being referred to here, the presumption is that the reference is being made to signal head B since this is the signal head associated with the siding track and also taking into consideration the “CP Topanga switch” was “aligned for eastbound movement into the siding”).

    Secondly, I could find no mention of the date signal testing was conducted. From this, there is no way of knowing if said signal testing for electrical integrity, was conducted before or after onsite eyewitness testimony regarding the color of the westbound CP Topanga mainline signal was gathered by NTSB investigators.

    Lastly, used in the context it is used, what does “at the time of the accident” mean? Does this mean, from “the time Metrolink train 111 departed Chatsworth Station and as it approached and passed Control Point Topanga” up to and including the point at which impact occurred? I feel the clause “at the time of the accident” needs to be clarified.

    My summation: It was clearly stated in Finding 5 that the westbound Control Point Topanga signal “was displaying a red aspect at the time Metrolink train 111 departed Chatsworth station and as it approached and passed Control Point Topanga.”

    From the information presented above, what is decisive according to the NTSB in its RAR-10/01 report from page 25 is, “at the time of the accident, the westbound signal at CP Topanga was displaying a red aspect (stop indication) and the dispatcher’s stacked request to clear the signal was waiting in the queue in the Digicon dispatching system.”

    Furthermore, in presenting what the data were on the signal aspect states for the four signal aspects (two for eastbound and two for westbound) “at the time of the accident,” it is what it is. Stated this way, in my opinion, nothing can be conclusively proved in terms of either trying to confirm or refute said eyewitness testimony regarding the color of the westbound CP Topanga signal aspect in question (that which was displayed on the A head) between the time Metrolink train 111 was stopped at the Chatworth Station up to its approach of the westbound signal mast but not passing it. For the record, Metrolink train 111 of September 12, 2008 passed the westbound CP Topanga signal mast at 4:21:56 p.m. according to information in the NTSB report.

    Based on the information presented, I don’t see how it can be concluded definitively what the four distinct signal aspects at CP Topanga were (in both the A and B signal heads for both the westbound and eastbound signals), prior to Metrolink train 111 passing the CP Topanga signal mast. In my opinion, what is or has been definitively concluded is the color of the mainline westbound CP Topanga signal aspect but only “at the time of the accident,” a clause, which, in my opinion, is vague and needs to be clarified. “At the time of the accident” is presumed to mean at the “moment of impact” and at the moment of impact, the presumption is the four signal aspects would be displaying “red” aspects.

    I have already decided for myself what I believe happened. It is presumed that that conductor that day would also know.

  9. Barbara Kloster

    Here is my point of view Alan. I have always felt that the Conductor should share the blame but he didn’t. I still feel in my heart that Sanchez ran the light whether it was red or green because all he could think about was who he texted and their plans for the evening . We could put the blame on at least 20 but that wouldn’t bring back the dead or fix the injured, like new. My point of view is my own but I am sure they are shared by many. Good talking to you. By the way, the Conductor broke his leg and medical bills were paid.
    I am not sure but I think Veolia took care of it. FYI, Some of our Lawyers are now working for Veolia. What a GOOD OLD BOYS CLUB THEY HAVE.

  10. Alan Kandel

    Barbara, I am in partial agreement that texting contributed to the tragic collision of the two trains that fateful Sept. 12, 2008 day in Chatsworth, California.

    I seem to recall that the conductor aboard the passenger train communicated to engineer Robert Sanchez in the locomotive cab a “high ball” signal (“clear track ahead” in railroad parlance) prior to the train departing Chatsworth station. This action presupposes that the conductor in question not only was able to see the approximately 1-mile distant Control Point Topanga signal governing said train’s movement but that the signal aspect itself was displaying green. If this was in fact the case, this would align with the testimony given by the 3 eyewitnesses present (the two train buffs and one security guard) and so-documented in the L.A. Times article I mentioned in my earlier post.

    The bigger question then becomes: If the signal in question was red as suggested, then why would the aforementioned conductor have communicated to engineer Sanchez that the control point signal was, in effect, green and that it was okay for said passenger train to proceed out of the station? If this was, in fact, what had happened, then by that action, doesn’t the conductor at least bear some responsibility in this collision as well?

    I truly believe that there were numerous factors that contributed to this event occurring and in my heart of hearts to pin the blame entirely on Robert Sanchez is indeed unfair.

  11. Barbara Kloster

    Good to hear your opinions on false greens at the stations..The 2008 crash was caused by the engineer texting so he ran thru whatever light there was. false or positive. The Conductor had reported him several times to Veola but never to OSHA. The Conductor was considered a whistle blower, was not fired, kept his job, even tho knowing what he did know, had the authority to stop the train while it was stopped at the station until a new engineer could be brought in.
    Feel like I’m kicking a dead horse for all the good what opinions I have, don’t count. Good hearing from you Alan.

  12. Alan Kandel

    I have since located the Los Angeles Times article referred to in my previous comment. The title is: “Witnesses say light was green just before Metrolink train crashed,” an Oct. 4, 2008 article written by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez. The locomotive engineer-turned-railroad consultant mentioned in the referenced article is William Keppen who commented that in his 13-year stint as a train engineer, he observed false clear signals on two different occasions but did not move his train past the signal displaying the false green signals fully understanding that on the tracks ahead of him was another train.

    Story here: http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-traincrash4-2008oct04-story.html

  13. Alan Kandel

    Great article, for sure. But, more importantly, discussion of a subject in the media that is not only warranted but, in fact, long overdue.

    Personally, I would like to see a related article dealing with the signal issue. There is an important story here, too, you know. I witnessed something similar to the signal color changes as described above, in that the signal color changes I observed, flipped back and forth from red to green to red to green repeatedly before finally displaying “green” just before an eastbound train movement this signal was governing arrived. The location was on the Southern Pacific railroad just east of the town of Truckee, California on the Donner Pass line. I was puzzled.

    And, relatedly, a Los Angeles Times news article in which Molly Hennessy-Fiske who was one of three reporters in all (the two other reporters names I cannot recall), reported in this article in question (incidentally, released shortly after the deadly head-on train collision in Chatsworth, California on Sept. 12, 2008), was mention of a railroad consultant from Annapolis, Maryland (as I remember it) who, when, as a former locomotive engineer, recounted two separate incidents in which he witnessed “false green” signal aspect displays. I also seem to remember reading that this particular consultant as former locomotive engineer expressing in the article in question that he had had the presence of mind not to move his train forward due to the track ahead of his train being occupied by another train traveling toward his train, the presumption being, had he moved his train past this “false green” signal onto the so-referenced occupied track, disastrous consequences no doubt would have resulted.

    Information in the Times story as to why the false clear signal aspects (again, there were 2 instances), was lacking, as were details about what was done to remedy the situation or what was done to see that the presence of “false-clear” signal displays were not repeated.

    This, notwithstanding, signal malfunctions do happen and can present a definite danger when they do.

    I hope you will consider my suggestion.

  14. Raymond Baker

    I was a terminal trainmaster for CSX in the Cumberland, Md. Hump Terminal for CSX. When I reported that numerous derailments were being covered up by Terminal Management to Tony Ingram, then the Chief Transportation Officer, I was fired from my position. I had Conductors seniority & now am a Locomotive Engineer in Philadelphia, Pa.

  15. Mac English

    “The culture and the workplace fear of reporting injuries or safety problems hasn’t changed at BNSF here on the Chicago Division either”…

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