Illicit practice admitted in Muni crash

July 20, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
There is a lot of finger-pointing going on in San Francisco over the worst accident in Muni history. Management and union workers are telling different stories about the weekend accident.

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Whatever the reason or excuse, a lot of people were hurt.

Irwin Lum, President of the Transport Workers Union, did not miss his words Monday as he made serious accusations against Muni management. But, he also said that some of his members knowingly violated Muni rules. All the accusations are being investigated by the NTSB. Lum also confirmed something witnesses have been saying about the driver who has been identified as Henry Gray.

He confirmed that the operator of the train which caused the collision lost consciousness just before the crash.

"He had a blackout which caused the train to collide with the train that's already sitting on the station platform," he explained.

The NTSB is trying to determine if he had a medical emergency, fell asleep or was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Investigators say the operator did not press a button called the "red mushroom," which activates the emergency brake.

They also found that he switched from automatic to manual mode when he entered the tunnel, before approaching the platform. Muni procedure is to wait until the train gets there. The automatic mode stops the train short of the platform when another train is in the station.

Lum explained Monday that operators routinely go to manual so they can pull up behind trains that are stopped, and load and unload their passengers faster.

"It's an unspoken practice that, people do it on their own, take the train out of automatic and move it up by themselves," he said.

Lum says this happens because drivers are being pressured by Muni management to stick to tight schedules.

"We compromise safety to do these things for on-time service. So, you're putting our members, the operators as well as the public at risk. "

Muni officials say they cannot respond directly to the allegations because of the NTSB probe, but spokesman Judson True says the procedures were designed for safety.

"The fact that safety is the top priority means that it's more important than anything else including on-time performance or keeping any kind of schedule," he said.

The advance-train control system alerts supervisors in the control center everytime an operator switches from automatic to manual when entering a tunnel. That computer data, as well as the images from the platform cameras, have all been sent to the NTSB. There was no word Monday on the progress of that probe.

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