Last year's BART fire cause found

January 30, 2009 9:33:07 PM PST
A fire at the Bay Area Rapid Transit Hayward maintenance yard last May that caused at least $11 million in damage and affected BART service for months likely resulted from the failure of BART employees to remove equipment following work performed on the line, according to a BART accident report.

The report details what went wrong on May 10, when two fires burned at the maintenance yard on Sandoval Way, including the lack of a final inspection by supervisors and the failure of electricians to keep track of their equipment.

A labor union that represents the electricians involved has submitted its own report to BART that states that electricians warned their supervisors not to restore power after the first fire but that management proceeded anyway and caused the second blaze.

Following the first fire, reported around 4:30 a.m., BART performed an inspection and, several hours later, decided to restore power to the line. The second fire was reported around 11:30 a.m.

No one was injured but the fires caused extensive damage to a gap breaker station, which enables isolation of nearby third rail sections, a train control room and communications wiring.

The BART report states that BART electricians had installed jumper cables and an "earth ground cable" to route any stray electricity into the ground during a months-long project to update control equipment at the site.

When the project wrapped up, electricians failed to remove the cable, and the first fire began when high-voltage power passed through the ground cable and made contact with train control wiring, according to the report.

According to a draft report sent to BART department heads by Harry Gordon, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, BART chapter, electricians involved in the inspection urged their supervisors after the first fire to hold off on restoring power.

"Further repairs needed to be done and electricians warned managers of this," Gordon states in the report.

However, Gordon said pressure from upper management and other BART officials "compelled electrical section managers to panic and act rashly without prudent, workman-like caution."

BART chief engineer Don Allen said today he is not aware of any objections raised by electricians prior to the restoration of power that morning.

"I don't believe that's true," he said.

He said he does not believe there was undue pressure to restore service, other than a general desire by transit officials to get BART back up and running for riders.

He pointed out that the fire happened on a Saturday, not during a commute hour, and said the agency restores power in such a situation if it appears conditions are safe.

Gordon also claimed in his draft report that BART electricians are inadequately trained, and called for the creation of a new training program within the agency.

Regarding the cause of the first fire, the BART report found that the electricians should have accounted for their equipment, but also that there should have been additional systemwide safety protocol in place.

A previous manager who oversaw similar projects at other locations in the BART system made it a habit to inspect every work site as each project was completed, according to the BART report. In one instance, he spotted a forgotten ground cable that could have caused a fire similar to the Hayward blaze.

However, a new manager did not inspect the Hayward site - which he wasn't required to - enabling the leftover ground cable to go unnoticed.

The report lamented that protocol did not required a final inspection with a checklist, and implied the previous manager should have seen the prior incident as a red flag and implemented a stricter system.

Allen said BART has enacted stricter safety measures since May, including training sessions, random safety audits of work sites and the creation of a safety checklist to prevent similar oversights.

He said employees on several levels were disciplined for the Hayward fires. He declined to discuss the details of the discipline but said no one had been fired.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson said numerous factors contributed to the fires.

"There were mistakes up and down the chain, with the electricians as well as with the supervisors, and with policies," Johnson said. "Everybody shared in the blame and we're taking corrective actions to make sure this doesn't happen again."