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New talks raise hopes for end to SF transit strike

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 12:06 a.m. CDT

OAKLAND, Calif. – Representatives of the San Francisco Bay Area's rail transit system and its striking unions returned to the bargaining table Monday, raising hopes among the region's frustrated commuters that a four-day work stoppage that has gridlocked highways and doubled travel times is about to end.

BART officials hoped to have a contract agreement in place by Monday evening so trains could begin running on the system's 104 miles of track by Tuesday, BART spokesman Rick Rice said. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 President Antonette Bryant confirmed talks had resumed but declined to comment further.

ATU represents station agents, train operators and clerical workers who walked off the job early Friday with mechanics and maintenance workers represented by the Service Employees International Union. Contract negotiations had broken down over work rules for scheduled hours and overtime.

While the talks continued, federal investigators announced that the operator of a BART train that killed two track workers Saturday was a trainee and that the train was traveling 60 to 70 mph. A BART worker and a contractor were struck by the train while inspecting an above-ground section of track in Walnut Creek.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator James Southworth said Monday the BART employee operating the train during a maintenance run was being certified to drive trains. He said the trainee had held other BART positions but he would not say whether the operator was a manager being trained to provide service during the strike.

The operator heard an announcement just before the accident that there were people on the tracks, Southworth said. A horn was sounded and emergency brakes were applied.

The Contra Costa County coroner's office identified the victims as Laurence Daniels, 66, of Fair Oaks, and Christopher Sheppard, 58, of Hayward.

The four-car train was not carrying any passengers due to the strike. BART has said it had dropped off some vandalized cars to be cleaned and was returning to a train yard under computer control Saturday when it hit the two men. They are the sixth and seventh BART workers to die on the job in the system's 41-year history. No one on board was hurt.

It could take several weeks to determine if the work stoppage or the way BART management deployed non-striking workers played a role in the fatalities, Southworth said earlier.

The ongoing investigation at the collision site could delay the resumption of service there if the strike's end is imminent, he said.

Southworth promised that the NTSB would conduct a thorough investigation.

"We won't leave any stone unturned," he said. "These things happen basically in an instant. But in order to take a good look at them, it takes quite a lot of time."

The NTSB is sending an on-board image-recording device from the train to Washington, D.C., for analysis.

Oklahoma State University transportation engineering professor Samir Ahmed, who has studied rail transit safety, said he would be surprised if the strike did not somehow factor into the accident.

"When you have a strike like what is happening at BART now, communications are poor in general," he said. "The strike environment causes confusion."

That the two inspectors were hit by a train shows that critical information was not relayed either to the workers on the track or the people operating the train, Ahmed said.

"There should have been someone at the controls there talking to the workers and talking to the train engineer," he said. "Something did not did not go right, and if it is their policy to have this kind of maintenance during a strike they should have communicated that to the engineers."

Area residents who endured long lines for crowded buses and ferries into San Francisco on Monday offered differing opinions on which side bore more blame for the impasse, but they were unanimous in the view that the public was being unfairly hurt and that the strike had to end.

"We need BART to be running right now," Karen Wormley said as she waited for a bus at a BART station in the East Bay city of Walnut Creek, where the line was at least hundred-people deep before dawn. "I need to get to work."

___

Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Haven Daley and Terence Chea in Walnut Creek contributed to this report.

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