The operator of a San Francisco Municipal Railway light rail vehicle that smashed into another train Saturday, injuring nearly 50 people, told the union that represents him he suffered a blackout just before the accident, a union spokesman said today.
Investigators have declined to discuss whether the train operator experienced a medical problem prior to the crash, but said the train’s emergency brake was not activated prior to the impact.
The operator, identified today as Henry Gray, started with Muni as a bus driver in 1979 and had worked as a light rail operator since 2007.
An investigation into the 2:50 p.m. crash at the West Portal station has revealed the operator switched the L-Taraval train into manual mode 24 seconds before the light rail vehicle plowed into a K-Ingleside train.
Muni trains are supposed to remain in automatic mode, not manual mode, when traveling between the Embarcadero and West Portal stations, Transport Workers Union local 250-A President Irwin Lum said today.
The operator’s decision to switch the train into manual mode, however, was not unusual, Lum said. Muni operators, he said, with the approval of the dispatch and control center, have for the past three or four years commonly operated under manual mode to speed up service for passengers.
“We want to set the record straight that these things have been going on for three or four years and it’s a known issue,” Lum said.
He said trains in automatic mode take minutes longer to enter the platform than a train operated in manual mode.
“It speeds up and helps service delivery and on-time performance … and has been condoned,” Lum said.
He said the union is upset because up until Saturday’s crash, operating in manual mode was common practice, and now “it’s being portrayed like the operator did something that was wrong.”
Muni CEO Nathaniel Ford issued a statement this afternoon in response to Lum’s comments, stating the agency is committed to operating a safe transit system.
“While this was clearly a serious accident, the Muni system is a safe one and safety is our absolute priority,” Ford said in the statement. “We are determined to take every action possible to make sure that this sort of accident does not happen again, and we hope our union partners will join us in those efforts.”
The collision left 47 people injured, Muni officials said. San Francisco General Hospital spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said today that 15 people were taken to that hospital’s emergency room after the crash, and that 11 were released the same day.
Of the four people admitted, three remained at the hospital today two in “good” condition and one in “fair” condition, she said.
She said the fourth person admitted to the hospital Saturday has been transferred to another hospital.
The National Transportation Safety Board has stepped in to lead the investigation into the crash, and the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Transit Authority are helping as well.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said today the agency is investigating Muni procedures and said it’s too soon to draw any conclusions about operators using manual mode versus automatic mode.
“We’re still in the very early phases of this investigation,” Knudson said. “That’s an area we’re going to look into, the switch from manual mode to automatic mode,” he said.
“We’ll want to know what the Muni procedures are, the approved procedures, what the practices are and what the training is,” Knudson said.
He said the agency is working to schedule interviews with both operators involved in the collision, as well as those working in the dispatch control center and any eyewitnesses to the crash.
He said the full investigation could take up to a year.