Rail officials knew of engineer’s speeding, drunk driving. They let him drive trains anyway
The former operator of the state’s commuter rail system said earlier this year that it was unaware one of its engineers had a poor driving record — more than 80 pages long — when it put him behind the controls of a locomotive train.
But internal records obtained by the Globe indicate that the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, which operated the system until 2014, knew that Roberto Ronquillo III had had his license suspended twice after being pulled over for drunken driving. Despite this, he started training in 2011 to become an engineer, carrying thousands of commuters each day.
Ronquillo, son of the chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court, was also penalized multiple times for safety violations on the job both before and after Keolis took over the system in 2014.
These included running a stop signal and failing to stop before entering a faulty railroad crossing. He was suspended by Keolis for both incidents, the latter for “extreme negligence,” according to the records obtained by the Globe.
“Employees that repeatedly engage in risky behavior have no business running a train or working on a track gang,” said David Hughes, former Amtrak acting chief executive and chief engineer. “Risky behavior is a hazard to everyone nearby.”
Ronquillo left Keolis weeks after the Globe published a story in February detailing his lengthy driving record. He did not respond to requests for comment. A company spokesman wouldn’t provide details.
Spokesman Tory Mazzola declined to discuss Ronquillo’s disciplinary record, saying: “We don’t comment on personnel matters or the specifics of an individual’s performance.”
But in an e-mailed statement, Mazzola said: “The safety of our passengers and employees is our highest priority. We have a robust program of monitoring performance, providing continuous training, and evaluating train operations.”
MBCR, which oversaw the system from 2003 to mid-2014, dissolved and is no longer a company. A spokesman declined to comment.
MBCR certified him as an engineer in 2012 and recertified him in 2013.
By the time he was granted a transfer to customer service in 2017, Ronquillo had amassed a personal driving record so bad that a state board said he could have a license only if his car was outfitted with an ignition interlock device, which requires a breath test to start the car.
When the Globe published its story in February, former commuter rail officials suggested they were unaware of how bad Ronquillo’s driving record was.
A person associated with MBCR acknowledged at the time that there was no evidence in the defunct company’s records that MBCR checked Ronquillo’s driving history before re-certifying him to be an engineer in 2013.
“It’s unacceptable. It should never have happened,” said this person, who was not allowed to speak publicly for the company. “We should have caught it.”
But records show that MBCR did pull Ronquillo’s driving record twice, once before he was promoted from assistant conductor to engineer in 2011. At that time, the record would have shown two drunken driving arrests — one in 2003 and another in 2008 — among other driving infractions. Because of his troubles, the company required as a condition of his promotion that he agree to enhanced drug and alcohol testing for two years.
Keolis officials said they would have reviewed Ronquillo’s driving record in late 2016, had he not taken a leave of absence voluntarily.
Railroad operators must certify their engineers when they are hired and at least every three years under federal law, checking each engineer’s safety conduct, including driving records, as well as testing the engineer’s vision, skills, and hearing.
MBCR officials earlier this year suggested they first certified Ronquillo because federal rules allowed them to look at Ronquillo’s record for only the preceding three years, a period that did not include any drunken driving convictions or license suspensions.
Hughes, the former Amtrak acting CEO, said MBCR should never have promoted Ronquillo to engineer.
“Nothing prevents the operators from checking lifestyles for employees who will have life and death responsibility for passengers and other employees,” he said. “The fact that enhanced screening was imposed says they already knew he was a risky hire.’”
And MBCR officials pulled his record again in September 2013 — a year after he had been operating trains by himself as a fully certified engineer.
By this time, Ronquillo’s personal driving record had only gotten worse — he had completed bad driver’s school, a course required when drivers have three accidents or traffic offenses for which they were found responsible within a 24-month period. (Ronquillo completed the course three times, according to the RMV.)
He had also been arrested and convicted of drunken driving in California and charged with drunken driving after getting into an accident in the Back Bay, records show.
In January 2014, because of the California conviction, the Registry of Motor Vehicles suspended Ronquillo’s license to drive, which put him in the position of being licensed to drive a commuter rail train but not an automobile.
Ronquillo was required to report the license suspensions, something he did not do, according to MBCR and Keolis officials.
Nor did Ronquillo inform Keolis in April 2015 that Medford police pulled him over in his Cadillac while his license was suspended for drunken driving. This time, he was found in violation of probation and sent to jail overnight — the only time he has been locked up, records show.
All the while, Ronquillo continued to drive commuter rail trains, running up infractions at work while he was running up infractions on the road.
His first work violation was in 2013 when he drove with a brake applied. MBCR suspended him for two days and required him to have safety talks with co-workers. “Your alleged actions caused the premature failure of locomotive brakes and subsequently caused undo delay to the traveling public,” read the charges against him.
In December 2014, he received a letter of reprimand for failing to report to work at the proper time, forcing another substitute engineer to cover part of his route.
In 2015, he was cited twice — once on Oct. 4 for failing to stop the train before entering a malfunctioning railroad crossing in Scituate, internal records show. He was removed for “extreme negligence.”
On April 21, 2015, he ran his train through a stop signal and didn’t report it to the dispatcher. For that violation, Keolis suspended him for 45 days and revoked his engineer certificate for 30 days.
His last infraction occurred in 2016, when he was cited for failing to request his driving record as part of his recertification as an engineer. Engineers who are up for recertification must request their driving histories for their employer to review.
Keolis scheduled a disciplinary hearing for September. But in July, a tipster alerted the company to his driving record. Before the rail line could take action, Ronquillo requested an unpaid leave of absence that lasted nearly a year. When he returned to the commuter rail, he took a position in customer service.