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ODOT inspection: “No concerns for public safety”

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Roberta Altstadt.-->
by Roberta Altstadt

Report finds MAX rails safe and backs up hard work of TriMet union track workers dedicated to providing safe and reliable service

An inspection of the TriMet MAX light rail system reinforces the agency’s assurance to riders that the system is safe, refuting accusations to the contrary made by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) leadership.

The inspection was conducted by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), the designated rail safety oversight agency for TriMet rail operations, as required by the Federal Transit Administration.

“After 50 plus hours of inspections and reviewing of records, ODOT was unable to find any areas of a safety concern,” said ODOT Manager of Rail Safety Section John Johnson.

“The inspection supports the fact that our MAX system is safe,” said TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane. “Our skilled maintenance of way employees work hard every day to ensure that our system is maintained and operating as it should.”

TriMet welcomed the ODOT inspection after ATU President Bruce Hansen made public allegations questioning the safety of the MAX system. The claims were an attempt to divert attention away from contract reform. In fact, ATU leadership has raised membership dues to launch a $600,000 public relations campaign to distract public and media attention from the need to reform the ATU contract and bring union health care costs under control.

ATU unsafe claims unfounded

The ODOT Track Compliance Specialist inspected 21 switches and six rail crossings as well as walked approximately five miles of track and rode more than 28 miles on the MAX system. The inspector reported he was unable to find any areas that pose a safety concern. This despite ATU leadership’s accusations that the MAX system was in disrepair, which Hansen attempted to back up with photos he claimed showed unsafe and poorly maintained rails and track switches.

According to the specialist’s report, much of the inspection was spent in the areas that Hansen, in an interview with ODOT officials, said the photos were taken, along with other sections he claimed presented a danger. Again, the inspection found no areas posing a safety concern.

Finding: Crack rail “has been welded, ground and repaired” ahead of ATU claims

In his report, the inspector addresses a crack in a rail shown in one of the photos supplied to the media by the ATU. Although Hansen could not tell ODOT exactly where the crack was located, the inspector and TriMet managers believe they found the rail in question. It had been welded, ground and repaired during routine maintenance within the two weeks before the inspection. The crack was in a section of rail that is attached to ties at the base and fully enclosed by pavement, making it secure even if it had expanded before being repaired.

Cracks and rail wear do develop over time in a light rail system however they do not necessarily pose a safety risk. Union workers walk and inspect the entire MAX alignment every two weeks. That’s 108.8 miles of rail in paved and ballasted trackway. Any issues are noted and monitored. They are addressed during routine, preventative maintenance work as the photographed crack appears to have been.

Finding: Rail and tie wear within “standard allowance” and “no concerns for the public safety” found

The ODOT inspector examined a section of track near the Gateway Transit Center and found the gauge – or distance between the two rails – was “well within the Track Safety Standards” of the Federal Railroad Administration, and reported there was “no concerns for the public safety.”

The inspector also noted other areas such as west of the Willow Creek/SW 185th Ave Transit Center where Hansen questioned track conditions. After walking the section and riding a train over it, the inspector was, “unable to identify any track geometry or ride quality issues in this area.” The results were similar in the other areas Hansen purported as unsafe.

Finding: TriMet-initiated slow orders provide “additional safety” than required

TriMet has placed orders for operators to slow trains in a section of track near Gateway Transit Center and between NE11th and 13th avenues in the Lloyd District. In his report the inspector noted that the Gateway slow order, which was initiated solely by TriMet, provided additional safety although the area was already within compliance of safety standards. In contrast, ATU leadership had claimed the areas were safety hazards.

Slow orders may be issued as a precaution to monitor a situation that may work itself out, such as a kink in the rail caused by the sun, or to keep tabs on standard rail wear. If a piece of the trackway ever became a safety hazard, it would immediately be recognized due to continual monitoring and that section of the rail would immediately be closed to train traffic until a repair was made.

Finding: Two switch points “in need of adjustment”

The ODOT inspector identified two switch points that he said, “…were in need of adjustment due to them not fitting tightly against the stock rail.” He did not rule this a safety issue. The adjustments are considered a maintenance issue and ODOT’s Johnson told TriMet that, “the schedule for addressing the issues was satisfactory.” TriMet plans to make the adjustments within 30 days.

Finding: “No areas of non-compliance” with federal safety standards

Despite ATU leadership’s accusations and alarming statements of dangerous rail thinning and hazardous track damage, the ODOT inspection report found nothing to back those claims up. “Throughout our inspections, we did not identify any areas of non-compliance with the track safety standards,” noted the specialist.

TriMet workers dedicated to a safe system

TriMet’s dedicated safety team and union mechanics, operators, controllers, dispatchers, supervisors and field staff work every day to insure the system – MAX, bus and WES Commuter rail – is safe for TriMet riders and fellow TriMet employees.

“TriMet does have proper maintenance that allows us to keep any issue from reaching a point that endangers our customers or the communities we serve,” said TriMet Safety and Security Executive Harry Saporta. “Our system is safe for our riders, our employees and the public.”

TriMet will continue to work with ODOT on any concerns about the safety of the system.

False claims of retaliation

ATU leadership is now claiming TriMet managers are threatening retaliation against employees. That is not the case. Managers encourage employees to raise any safety concern and may press for specific information and locations to assure those areas are being monitored and maintained because the agency takes safety issues very seriously. Also, union employees are protected by the union contract and all staff members are protected by employment law.

Reform the contract – service versus health care benefits

ATU leadership has used delay tactics and false accusations to divert attention from reforming a contract that includes the most generous health care benefits in the nation. The ATU continues to appeal the minor health care relief awarded in binding arbitration last year. As union leadership is aware, modest changes to health care benefits will save TriMet from future service cuts. TriMet appreciates the union’s commitment to safety, and hopes the same level of commitment can be given to saving transit service.

Read the ODOT inspection final report

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About Roberta Altstadt