Sacramento transit agency challenges $10,000 fine for runaway train

The state has fined Sacramento Regional Transit for a technician’s error in February that allowed a train to run unoccupied for 1.5 miles.
The state has fined Sacramento Regional Transit for a technician’s error in February that allowed a train to run unoccupied for 1.5 miles. Sacramento Bee file

Saying the state is being punitive, Sacramento Regional Transit has challenged a $10,000 fine issued by the California Public Utilities Commission in connection with a runaway light-rail train in North Sacramento earlier this year.

RT acknowledges it was at fault when the train sped down the tracks without a driver, but the agency argues it has taken steps to prevent such an incident from happening again, and so the PUC fine is unnecessary.

The dramatic Feb. 17 incident, involving an unoccupied train, happened when a maintenance technician disabled safety features while working on the train at the agency’s maintenance yard. After he climbed off, the train rolled away. It ran through three active light-rail stations – Swanston, Royal Oaks and Arden/Del Paso – and crossed several streets on a 1.5-mile, four-minute journey before losing power and gliding to a halt near Del Paso Boulevard.

RT officials said the automatic crossing arms, bells and flashing lights at intersections and stations worked just as they would have if a regularly scheduled train had been passing through. No one was injured, but RT officials acknowledged the incident was startling and dangerous, and could have caused harm if the train had not lost power.

RT Chief Operating Officer Mark Lonergan said the unnamed technician was troubleshooting an electrical issue on the train on a spur track at the agency’s Academy Way facility. He jammed a screwdriver under the vehicle’s “deadman” switch, disabling that mechanism. He also disconnected a secondary device that would have kept the train from accelerating.

When the technician got off to check an electrical panel on the train’s exterior, the train took off, quickly reaching 43 mph, according to an onboard computer. Before leaving the maintenance yard near El Camino Avenue, the train ran through a track, causing one set of wheels to derail. That set of wheels re-railed moments later when it hit the edge of the Swanston station platform, agency officials said. The train at that point was going an estimated 30 mph, Lonergan said.

The jostling caused the overhead electric arms to lose connection to power lines, causing the train to lose power. It slowed until it stopped after passing the Arden/Del Paso station.

The state PUC issued the $10,000 fine after RT and the PUC investigated the incident. In its report, the PUC noted, “the technician indicated that he had been trained to circumvent these protective controls in order to more easily troubleshoot problems, and that this was not the first time he had done so.”

RT officials say they worked cooperatively with the PUC to determine the cause and then put into place a series of corrective steps to guard against the event happening again. Lonergan said his agency believes the PUC would have been right to impose a fine if RT hadn’t taken corrective action, but it isn’t right to fine RT when RT is being responsible by implementing safety steps.

“We needed to fix this so that it doesn’t happen again,” Lonergan said. “The citation just distracted us all from the issue.

“If we are willingly putting (safety procedures) in place with all our best efforts, and enforcing it, I don’t know what the citation services. It is just punitive.”

PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper declined comment, saying she could not discuss a pending legal matter.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak