Certified locomotive engineers that operate the Regional Transportation District’s A Line to Denver International Airport and B Line to Westminster have made dozens of serious mistakes in the last two years, some of which have endangered the public.
Incidents include speeding, blown red signals and even a few derailments in the maintenance yard, according to internal disciplinary records obtained by CPR News. The documents don’t indicate whether anyone was injured. In each case, the engineer was decertified — meaning they were suspended without pay for at least 15 days, or in some cases, fired.
Interviews with three former engineers, and with two current engineers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggest many of the decertifications are due to a few major factors: the lines’ design, a constant push to remain on time, tired operators, and low wages that contribute to high employee turnover and, subsequently, inexperienced engineers.
“You're worried about kids running to put rocks on the rails,” said one current engineer. “Kids running in front of you on bicycles, cars, everything. And you’ll lose focus because you've got so much going on.”
The A and B lines, and the G Line when it eventually opens, mark RTD’s first foray in commuter rail. The trains are much heavier and go faster than the agency’s light rail — up to 79 miles per hour. The three lines were built and are operated by a private consortium, Denver Transit Partners, its subsidiary Denver Transit Operators, and its subcontractors, all under contract to RTD.
A Denver Transit Partners spokeswoman declined an interview request and did not answer a list of detailed questions. She instead sent a statement from DTP Executive Project Director and CEO John Thompson that said, in part, “We have safely and reliably carried over 10 million passengers, our safety record is above the industry average, and on-time performance was 98 percent by the end of 2017.”
The full statement is printed at the bottom of this story.
Most Incidents On A Line, Documents Show
In total, the documents list at least 24 decertifications since April 2016, when the A Line opened. Engineers say more happened before the line opened, and spoke of still others not included in the documents CPR News reviewed. Most of the 24 documented incidents happened on the A Line, and most happened in the first 12 months of the flagship line’s debut.
“Sounds like a heck of a lot to me,” said Richard Beall, a railroad operations and safety expert. A review of a handful of other commuter rail lines in the U.S. shows that the numbers of decertifications in Denver is relatively high.
One incident happened on June 19, 2016, after former operator Jeffrey Brannon left Denver International Airport for Union Station. Along the way, he said his positive train control system malfunctioned.
Positive train control is a high-tech safety system now mandated by federal law. Many railroads across the country have struggled to implement the new system. RTD has long trumpeted the A and B lines for being the first commuter rail lines in the country to integrate a PTC system into its construction. That system had a rocky start though, including with the PTC-controlled wireless crossing gates that led to flaggers being stationed at each at-grade crossing for the past two years.
Brannon said when his PTC system started acting up, the dispatcher told him to turn it off. He was supposed to switch to a different train when he got to Union Station. But once he arrived, a new train wasn’t ready. So he made his return trip to the airport in the train without PTC.
Everything was going smoothly on Brannon’s return run until he hit a phase break, a designed dead zone between power stations that trains are supposed to coast through. Management told operators not even to brake in phase breaks, Brannon and other engineers say, because it could cut power to the entire line. It was there that he said he received a warning that an upcoming crossing gate had malfunctioned. The crossing, at Ulster Street, was quickly approaching.
“The very first thing that went through my mind was, 'I'm not going to stop at this crossing. I'm not going to stop at this crossing,’ ” Brannon said. “ ‘I hope that there's no one attempts to go out in front of me.’ ”
He braked as soon as he could, but it was too late. His train, documents show, slid into the crossing before it stopped. Once he realized he hadn’t hit anyone, Brannon said he felt a huge sigh of relief.
“And then, the other thing that went through my mind was, ‘Now I don't have a job. I'm going to be decertified,’ ” he said.
Brannon was suspended for 15 days, standard for an engineer’s first decertification. He said he didn’t fight it because he needed to get back to work. But now, nearly two years later, Brannon maintains it wasn’t his fault. He pins that both on the malfunctioning PTC system and what he calls a bad design of the A Line itself.
“I wasn't speeding,” he said. “I was going under the maximum authorized speed for that area. But the speed was faster then what it should have been due to the phase break being right there.”
The phase break shouldn’t be so close to a station and multiple at-grade crossings, Brannon said. The phase breaks on the A Line have since been shortened to give operators more control.
Brannon started with Denver Transit Operators in November 2015. He later left the company and is now in the real estate business.
“The only decertification of my entire 15-year career was at DTO. I had never had a safety incident anywhere else, operating 145-car coal trains, 200-some-thousand tons or more,” Brannon said. “And then this happens at DTO. It ruined my perfect record.”(Courtesy Denver Regional Transportation District)
Elizabeth Young, who was a train engineer for DTO from late 2015 until June 2017, said her first decertification happened before the A Line opened. She and another operator were training a third employee on near the airport. The trainee ran a red signal and entered a stretch of single track, just as another train was approaching head on.
“So she stopped the train,” Young said. “And I’m like, ‘oh my god.’ ”
The trains stopped about 100 to 150 feet from each other, Young said. The trainee was fired, Young said, and she, who was supposed be in the cab with the trainee, was decertified. And because she was staying in a hotel at the time, Young said, she had to live in her car during the unpaid suspension.
“Because you guys are suspending me and decertifying me, I'm going to be homeless for like 15 days,” Young said of Denver Transit Operators. “And they didn't care.”
Just over a year later, documents show, Young herself was fired after her second and third safety violation. “ ‘You're supposed to cry and beg for your job,’ ” Young said her supervisor told her. “I'm like, ‘why? You're going to fire me anyway.’ ”
Operators Blame Inexperience, Fatigue, Low Wages
Every engineer CPR News interviewed complained of the relatively low wages at Denver Transit Operators. Engineers say the current starting wage is about $16.50 an hour.
As a comparison, operators on the New Mexico’s RailRunner, a 100-mile commuter rail line that goes through Albuquerque to Santa Fe, start at about $37 an hour — about the same as their peers on big commuter rail lines on the East Coast.
There have only been three decertifications in New Mexico in the past two years, according to the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, and only 11 total since the line began operating in 2006. On the nearly 500-mile Metra in Chicago, only five engineers were decertified in 2016. For comparison, there were at least 20 decertifications in the 12 months following the A Line’s launch in April 2016, and at least 24 overall.
In Utah, engineer pay is closer to that in Colorado. FrontRunner operators start at about $17 an hour. There have been 12 decertifications on that 89-mile line through the Wasatch Front in the past two years, according to the Utah Transit Authority.
As a result of DTO’s relatively low pay, current engineers say, the company has had a difficult time retaining experienced workers.
“We make light of it that they hire a class of 12 people and only two make it out [of training],” said one current engineer. “They either flunk out because they are pushed along too quickly, or they wait until they get their certification and then they jump ship.”
Engineers estimate somewhere between 65 and 80 engineers are on staff. One engineer estimated there have been at least 180 engineers since the railroad began hiring in 2015.
“They don't care,” another current engineer said of DTO management. “We are cannon fodder.”
Engineers say they’ve had to take second jobs in order to make ends meet. “There's people that work at Home Depot, Toys 'R' Us, Lowes,” a current engineer said.
Federal law limits the consecutive hours of service engineers can work, and mandates time off between shifts. It doesn’t preclude train engineers from moonlighting elsewhere, though engineers say DTO’s own rules state a second job can’t interfere with their work driving trains. But the company, engineers say, doesn’t enforce that rule.
“It's all up to the company's discretion,” a current engineer said. “They don't really have the interest in going out and making sure that the operators aren't overworked.” And when engineers are overworked, they say, mistakes become more likely.
At least a handful of decertifications seem to be related to fatigue. In February 2017, an engineer overshot the platform at the 40th and Airport station. “Drifted momentarily,” the engineer explained in an internal document, “was not feeling well due to fatigue. But did attempt to stop once eyes opened and by then was already in station.”
The engineer hit the emergency brakes, and was suspended for not testing the train’s brakes after leaving the station.
In another incident, an engineer ran through a red signal and a switch at Union Station at about 3 p.m. on a Friday in July 2016. The engineer had ended his previous shift at 6:00 a.m. that same day, the documents state.
A decertification, engineers say, can be a huge blow.
“It ruins your career,” said a current train engineer. “If you want to go anywhere anytime soon, within two years, another railroad will look at you like you have a fresh DUI.”
Engineers also say management constantly pushes engineers to keep trains on time, and that can lead to mistakes as well. According to the contract between RTD and Denver Transit Partners, DTO’s parent company, RTD can penalize the company if trains are too late too often.
The Buck Stops Where?
Cash-strapped RTD entered into a $2.1 billion public-private partnership with Denver Transit Partners to build and operate the A, B, and G lines in 2010. Without that funding model, RTD says the trains wouldn’t have been built for years. But that structure also limits the news media’s ability to monitor the lines through open records requests.
CPR News obtained the decertification records from a source after months of dead-end public records requests. The inquiry was first made with RTD months ago. The agency said they did not have them, and any such request should be made to Denver Transit Partners. As a private consortium, Denver Transit Partners said it was not required to disclose the records.
By federal rule, Denver Transit Partners (and every other commuter railroad) is required to conduct a formal review and analysis of decertifications and make reports available to the Federal Railroad Administration. CPR News requested those reports from the FRA, the agency tasked with safety oversight of the nation’s railways. After a four-month wait, the agency said that it did not have them.
Reached for comment on the records CPR News did obtain, FRA spokesman Marc Willis referred this reporter to Denver Transit Partners and issued a brief statement.
“The FRA does not keep individual locomotive engineer certifications,” Willis said via email, adding that the FRA is required to approve the railroad’s engineer certification plan.
Willis did not answer a list of other questions. SMART Local 202, the union that used to represent DTO train engineers, also declined to comment.
Regional Transportation District spokesman Scott Reed said any disciplinary and performance issues on the A Line are the business of the company in charge of the engineers.
“DTO is dealing with their employees in the manner they see fit. And because they are DTO's employees and not RTD's, that is up to them,” Reed said. “We do approve their overall plans, but we don't determine how they handle individual employees and what they feel is appropriate for disciplinary actions.”
Denver Transit Partners declined an interview request. It instead issued this statement:
“We have safely and reliably carried over 10 million passengers, our safety record is above the industry average, and on-time performance was 98 percent by the end of 2017,” said Denver Transit Partners Executive Project Director and CEO, John Thompson. “Operator performance is just one safety factor, and the number of de-certifications dropped by over 50 percent from 2016 to 2017. The commuter rail system is designed to ‘fail-safe,’ which means that if any element of the system fails to perform properly — the train, the wayside signal system, or the operator — the train will immediately be brought to a safe stop before reaching any hazard that may lie ahead.”
CPR News could not confirm the company’s claim that its safety record is above average.
Brannon, the former engineer who’s now in real estate, said he spoke out because he thinks the commuter rail lines are a great benefit to the Denver area, and the state.
“I want it to be fixed,” he said. “The more light that I shed on the situation, hopefully the more pressure it puts on the people in charge who can do something about this.”
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