San Jose

Inspections Reveal Risk of Derailments and Train Collisions at VTA

State inspectors and agency insiders question whether the transit agency will be ready to service new riders by the time the 49ers stadium opens in August

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has been slow to make fixes to safety-related problems found by inspectors, state records obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit show. The documents reveal that for at least a year VTA has been operating dozens of light rail vehicles with faulty wheels, some as recently as last month. The transit agency may not have the mechanical components needed to bring trains into compliance with state regulations.

“They are letting some trains run that should not be running,” said a VTA employee with knowledge of how trains are operated and maintained.

The source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, added that safety is “not a priority every day” at VTA and only becomes important when the agency gets “caught by the state or the federal government.”

Through a series of California Public Records Act requests, the Investigative Unit obtained inspection reports from the California Public Utilities Commission’s rail safety section that indicate VTA has failed to properly maintain critical signals and many of its trains. The reports detail safety hazards that could lead to derailments and head-on collisions.

During a February 2013 visit, inspectors found multiple wheel deficiencies and problems with the agency’s wheel maintenance program. In a report summary, inspectors noted that “VTA has knowingly and willfully violated their safety procedures as well as CPUC regulations” and that the agency “does not have the capability” to maintain “safe vehicles.” The report also stated that VTA “has allowed defective wheels to operate in service.” Records show that during that same unannounced visit, inspectors witnessed a light rail vehicle depart for service that day with “condemnable wheels.”

Bad wheels increase the risk of derailment, according to the CPUC deputy director for rail safety, Paul King. He said inspectors instructed VTA not to run trains with defective wheels.

“We found they did run them after that,” King said.

He said that as recently as May—more than a year after inspectors first cited wheel problems—VTA sent trains into service with condemnable wheels.

VTA’s chief operating officer said he didn’t know that his agency was running trains on wheels that didn’t meet safety standards until the Investigative Unit showed him the inspection reports.

“This report says one of the vehicles they inspected departed for service with condemned wheels,” COO Mike Hursh said reading from the report. “I’m not aware of that.”

The VTA later said that the train cited in the February 2013 report was not at its condemning limit but that the train was brought back into the yard for repairs after it had departed for a 41-mile express trip.

In a May 2013 inspection, CPUC staff reviewed a list of light rail vehicles that still had “condemnable wheels” and noted that VTA was moving forward to have all vehicles compliant with state wheel standards. The report indicated VTA removed 29 vehicles from service for wheel replacement, which is nearly a third of the agency’s 99-train fleet.

VTA is currently running 55 of its light rail vehicles. However, a recent press release states that the agency will have 80 trains on the tracks in time for the opening of Santa Clara’s Levi's Stadium in August. The VTA insider believes the agency is being “rushed into compliance.” State inspectors are questioning whether the transit agency will be ready to service the influx of passengers once the new home of the 49ers opens for business.

“If they’re making the same progress over the next couple of months as they made over the last year, I don’t think they are going to be ready,” King said.

A May 2014 inspection report reveals that VTA trains are not being maintained properly because of a lack of parts. The agency wasn’t able to provide a timeline of when parts would be available to bring trains into compliance.

But the Investigative Unit also found that getting more trains ready for service isn’t VTA’s only problem. Records show that multiple times in 2012 and 2013, inspectors found problems with signals that were allowing trains to travel toward each other on the same track in potential head-on collision movements on a one and a half mile stretch of single track between the Fruitdale and Diridon stations in San Jose.

For instance, a June 2013 report states that inspectors were “very concerned with the fact that these trains were both traveling at high rates of speed”—one at 45 miles per hour and the other one at 55 miles per hour. Inspectors also noted that in January 2013 “both trains were approaching a head on head collision on a single track” but were stopped by the controller before that happened. The report notes various reasons for that failure including defective electronics on the signals to deficiencies that caused confusion for train controllers.

Hursh said that while the CPUC had concerns that trains were headed toward each other on the same track, the VTA did not share those same worries. He added that no VTA train has even been involved in a head on collision.

“There would be signals between those trains so there’d be other places for the train to stop or where the train would be required to stop,” Hursh said.

Russell Quimby, a rail safety expert and former long-time inspector with the National Transportation Safety Board said it is “disturbing” that VTA is “minimizing” those issues.

“The reason they haven’t had a catastrophic accident yet or collision is relative luck,” Quimby said.

He reviewed the CPUC inspection reports at the request of the Investigative Unit and concluded that maintenance problems have continued for a long time at VTA.

“This is going to take a major fix to bring the system up to speed and make sure the care is up to standard,” Quimby said.

But according to King, time is running out.

“They’ve had plenty of time to fix this,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten fixed.”

CPUC inspectors are now asking the board of commissioners for the power to issue citations when transit agencies don’t address the fixes they’re ordered to make. Currently, rail safety inspectors do not have enforcement power; they can only make recommendations to the transit agencies they oversee. Meanwhile, VTA’s chief operating officer said the agency is cooperating with the CPUC and working to fix signal and wheel issues.

“VTA is a very safe operation,” Hursh said. “We have very safe operators and I encourage everyone to ride VTA.”

With tens of thousands of new riders expected by the end of the summer, some VTA employees say they want proof, not promises, that trains are ready to run.

“If you are pushing public transportation it needs to be safe,” the VTA insider said. “And right now, it’s not safe.”

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