When values become buzzwords

I’m not sure who came up with this whole “Safety at TriMet is not just a priority, it’s a value” thing, but it’s really turning into more of a slogan than an actual practice. Like if we cram the word “safety” into a speech as many times as we can, SUCCESS! That means we have a safe system!

opendoorbanfieldOpen door on the MAX

Except, you know, in practice it doesn’t really work out like that, such as the recent failed door interlock on a MAX train. Or the not as publicized but still recent failed door interlock on a bus. Or all the track damage out there on the alignment that passengers might not notice unless they spot some of the wayside cones/flags denoting a slow order, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of areas of the alignment that are in need of repair.

Is everything at TriMet as safe as it could be? The official answer would have you believe yes, that’s the case. The rest of us aren’t convinced.

safety core valueI know that the Ruby Yard is safe. Why? Because the sign says so!

For those of you playing along from home, KOIN Local 6 has had the most thorough coverage. It began when Bruce Hansen, the president of ATU 757 called TriMet “a series of disasters waiting to happen.” He brought up numerous safety concerns about rail (this is not to say that there aren’t at bus as well, but that rail was the focus of this particular statement, mainly because of the recent door issue), including track damage, equipment failures, and Type 4 visibility issues.

TriMet’s response? Spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt issued a statement that MAX is perfectly safe and these safety concerns are just an attempt to discredit TriMet and draw attention away from the contract negotiations of the union’s excessive healthcare benefits.

How dare you, Roberta? Is it really the hallmark of an organization that values safety like TriMet claims to dismiss broken track and equipment problems as “attempts to discredit TriMet?” I don’t even want to dignify your jab at the union with a response.

KOIN’s latest step in the investigation (no story, just video) looks at some more photos of track damage and briefly goes over a letter from the union in October 2010 detailing in particular the visibility issues with the Type 4s. You read that right, a letter from the union in 2010. So much for Roberta’s claim that the union is only now bringing up safety issues now to try to detract attention from contract negotiations.

The KOIN report didn’t cover this other safety issue, but here is a video from the January 2011 board meeting where union representatives attempted (again, without any resolution) to address the Type 4 visibility problems with the TriMet board, several months after a lack of response from the October 2010 letter:

In short, the union has been trying, without success, to do something about these safety issues for a long time. Addressing this now has nothing to do with the contract.

But if piggybacking off the recent media attention given to the train with the broken door is finally going to get something done about this? Well okay then.

If you haven’t yet, take a look at that October 2010 letter, it’s an interesting read. Here are some of the highlights (and background): In July 2010, ATU gave TriMet formal notice that there were visibility issues with the Type 4s that required immediate attention, including the lack of mirrors, cab design, and external cameras. The “response” from TriMet in August 2010 was essentially “There’s no problem with the trains, they are safe.” The October 2010 letter that is now available on the union website was ATU’s response to TriMet’s refusal to address the problems, and it provides photograph evidence of some of the issues to further support the concerns about safety:

123 field of visionThe field of vision you get from the cab in a Type 2/3 on the left and a Type 1 on the right, given the position of the side windows and size of the window pillar

4 field of visionAnd the view you get in a Type 4, which is substantially more obstructed

what was actually thereThis photo was taken from the same train cab as the above pic – you can hide multiple trains in adjacent tracks in the blind spot of a Type 4

4 camera

And what the cameras in the 4s are like sometimes – remember, Type 4s don’t have mirrors to rely on when the cameras go screwy. Technically there are detachable ones, as seen below in the Clackamas break room, but those are only used by supervisors to get Type 4s with defective cameras out of service. You won’t see a 4 running in service with those on.

t4 mirror case

But back to the KOIN investigation – what was Safety Director Harry Saporta’s response to the union’s evidence?  “I didn’t see anything that was unsafe.”  Clearly Harry has never played the “Gee, I hope everyone on the platform got on my Type 4 because the way the sun is hitting the camera I can’t see a flipping thing, gonna close my doors and hope for the best” game. He should sometime, it’s great fun. And I guess he’s pretty mellow about cracked rails too, since he said those are just routine maintenance problems. (By the way, there have been attempts to call attention to track damage problems as well, long before the contract negotiation mess. THIS ISN’T NEW, ROBERTA.)

My favorite part of the KOIN investigation is that they asked a member of the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants who has no affiliation with TriMet or ATU to comment on the union’s safety concerns. The response? “This does not look like a routine maintenance issue and could be a bigger issue. If they have proper maintenance they would not have situations like these.”

Well, you know maybe this is a sign that TriMet needs a more capable safety guy if the one we’ve got doesn’t see any of this as a problem while assuring the public that “the system is absolutely safe and there is no need to worry.”

wizard_of_oz_wizard_headIs anyone else thinking of this or is it just me?

Then the plot thickens when ODOT orders an immediate inspection of the rail lines. This was covered by the Oregonian as well, which of course has the outcome of bringing out anti-union trolls in the comments (seriously, there are folks there saying that the union has zero concern for safety, people need to turn against all unions, and that ATU has been hiding these safety issues from TriMet managers as an “ace in the hole”. Hmm, speaking of ace holes…)

The problem is that TriMet is not a welcoming environment in which to escalate safety-related issues to try to get them fixed. Sure, you can find supervisors (who are also union) that will agree with your safety concerns, and even some of the lower levels of management do as well, though neither of these groups will necessarily have the teeth to do something about it. But when several tiers of upper management and the public information officers so vehemently deny any safety issues (as seen in this very instance), operators are often unwilling to try to buck the party line and speak out against them to try to address safety problems – the nail that sticks out is the one that gets hammered and all. Or we see what happens when an attempt is made: sometimes there’s just no response, like the union reps at the 2011 board meeting. Or we are told that our concerns are “an acceptable risk” or like the public is now getting, “there is no safety concern! Everything is just fine!”

I mean, look at the way this incident has been handled. The public already knew about the open  MAX doors on the Banfield, so clearly something wasn’t right. The union then brings up other safety issues that have been going on for years. And what is TriMet’s response? Not even a cursory “We’re glad this has come to our attention and are working hard to fix it.” No, it’s “Everything is safe and this is all just a smear campaign by the union.”

Yeah, way to show that safety is a value.

Look, the union negotiations are a messy issue, but that’s not what’s going on here. The public has a right to know if equipment or other issues are putting their safety at risk. Simply saying “Everything is safe” does not make it so. If safety is a value, it’s time to start acting like it.

4 responses to “When values become buzzwords

  1. This is wonderfully written, as usual. The fact that management is dismissing these very real, long-term, and well documented safety issues as nothing but “union propaganda” only further demonstrates their unwillingness to acknowledge the reality – and the danger – of a situation that results from years of mismanaged priorities.

    I think to myself whether it would take a derailment or some catastrophic accident involving loss of life to drive the message home to them, but I suspect they would only double down, saying that any faults or defects on the alignment were a result of “sabotage” by disgruntled union members. I’d love to be proven wrong.

    • I think you’re right.

      As much as I hate to say it, I believe it will take a disaster for them to wake up and pull their heads out of their “ace holes” (-clever way to say that).

      Putting money to fix these issues may reduce their bonuses so there’s no way they’ll do anything that could jeopardize the chances of them losing money. Because, you know, they know everything about the system. They’ve been on the front lines for so long – they really know what it’s like to do the job every day. TriMet needs to do that undercover boss thing. Then again…that would actually require one of the “bosses” to do actual work. Oh I forgot – and one that cares!

  2. Very nice article.

  3. I agree with the two previous comments.
    The research and presentation of the blog author is excellent, as it always has been

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