A rail safety system gone badly off track
Dean Walker’s license has been suspended 39 times for everything from driving to endanger to refusing a breathalyzer test. He’s been caught speeding 16 times and convicted of drunken driving twice.
To fellow motorists, he’s a hazard.
To the Registry of Motor Vehicles, he’s a chronic offender.
But to Keolis, the MBTA’s commuter rail operator, Walker is something else entirely — an engineer.
Despite his appalling driving history, Walker is entrusted with operating six-car trains, at speeds averaging 60 miles per hour, carrying hundreds of commuters to and from the city.
And he has plenty of company among his peers. About 110 commuter rail engineers, more than half of them, have driving records that experts described as poor considering the sensitive line of work they’re in — at least three infractions such as speeding, causing accidents, and failing to stop.
Nearly 50 engineers have had their driver’s licenses suspended — 44 of them more than once, according to Registry of Motor Vehicle records reviewed by the Globe.
The engineers’ supervisors don’t set much of an example, either. Manager of engineer training Shawn Monahan, who teaches aspiring engineers what they need to know before they can operate a train, has received 11 speeding tickets and caused two accidents.
Keolis’s head engineer, Mark Neverett, has 13 speeding tickets, eight accidents, and an operating under the influence on his driving record, though he’s had no recorded offenses since 2010.
The records obtained by the Globe, which span decades, raise serious concerns about safety on the commuter rail, experts say. Train operators aren’t required to have a driver’s license, and driving a 144-ton locomotive on fixed tracks is a very different discipline than driving a car. But a history of recklessness on the roads makes it much more likely someone will be reckless on the rails, they say.
“Someone who is known to have engaged in multiple incidents of risky and illegal behavior with an automobile should not be permitted to operate a train,” said David Hughes, the former chief engineer and acting CEO of Amtrak. “Locomotive engineers aren’t allowed mistakes on the job.”
Many of the engineers with poor driving records have, records show, also faced discipline on the railway — ranging from counseling to suspension — for such on-the-job infractions as running a stop signal, failing drug tests, or causing derailments.
But perhaps the harshest penalty was reserved for the Keolis executive who sounded the alarm about the number of engineers with dismal driving records.
Robert T. McCarthy, the vice president of safety, was dismissed after he warned the company about the potential risks in employing engineers with problematic personal driving histories, according to documents obtained by the Globe.
McCarthy left Keolis last fall, just a year and a half after the company heralded his arrival from the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, where he served as deputy chief operating officer.
Before leaving, McCarthy sent an audit to Keolis’s general manager raising a host of safety concerns, including the engineers’ driving records. He concluded: “If there were a catastrophic incident, Keolis would be scrutinized and would not fare well in a [federal] investigation.”
Keolis, which has operated the commuter rail system for the MBTA since July 2014, said Friday that “nothing is more important” than safety.
Spokesman Tory Mazzola said the company has invested $15 million into improving safety systems, including a new training simulator and safety technology for engineers. Mazzola noted that its engineer supervisors are “valuable, hard-working employees with excellent work records” and their personal driving records have “absolutely no bearing” on their job performance.
Rules limit review of records
Keolis said it inherited most of its workforce from the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, which ran the system from 2003 to mid-2014, and Amtrak, which ran the system before then. Keolis promised in its bid for the contract to review the qualifications of its workforce. Mazzola said Keolis relied on the employee certification and background checks performed by the prior rail system operators.
Keolis and MBCR officials both have said that commuter rail management is hamstrung by federal rules that allow a railroad to look at an engineer’s driving record only for the three-year period prior to certifying him or her as fit for the job. Also, the railroad cannot consider speeding violations, only drunken driving convictions and related license suspensions. And even enforcing that standard is hard; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union fights the company whenever it seeks to impose discipline on one of its members, they said.
Keolis officials have faced questions about the company’s engineers since the Globe reported in February that engineer Roberto Ronquillo III had 10 license suspensions and multiple stops for drunken driving on his record. At the time, Keolis and MBCR officials suggested Ronquillo, the son of a Boston judge, was an anomaly whose driving record was somehow missed during the vetting process.
Newly obtained internal documents suggest otherwise. Commuter rail officials pulled his driving record in 2011 when he was training to be an engineer. MBCR required Ronquillo to undergo enhanced drug and alcohol testing as a condition of getting the new job.
But the broader Globe review found that Ronquillo’s alarming driving record barely stands out among commuter rail engineers, who earn around $100,000 a year.
Among them: Veteran engineer Richard Russell who chalked up 13 speeding tickets, got into three accidents, and had his license suspended 14 times.
And Alcino Fernandes, who ran up 16 speeding tickets, caused 11 accidents, and received four citations for passing a school bus, records show. He is not currently operating a train, according to Keolis officials, and is awaiting a disciplinary hearing. Officials would not provide details.
Fernandes, the only engineer who responded to a Globe request for comment, said that most of his violations were “well over 10 or 20 years ago.” However, records show he was caught speeding in 2010 and committed a “state highway violation” in 2015.
“All that stuff took place long before I started with the railroad,” said Fernandes, 51. “I was a young kid when all that ridiculous stuff happened.”
As a group, the system’s engineers racked up a staggering number of violations, including more than 200 license suspensions, according to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Besides motor vehicle infractions, drivers can lose their license for failing to pay fees or fines.
Eighty-five engineers received more than two speeding tickets. Six have been declared habitual traffic offenders. And more than 85 percent of the engineers have at least one driving infraction.
Hughes, who led national rail operator Amtrak, said locomotive engineers, like other transportation professionals, should have pristine driving records.
“In the trucking industry, you can’t drive a truck if you don’t have a clean record,” said Hughes. “Same with taxi industry. To have 80 percent of your engineers with an operating infraction is appalling. . . . I would imagine you might find 10 percent, maybe.”
In the Massachusetts’ commuter rail system, the opposite is true — fewer than 10 percent had no driving citations and no incidents of discipline.
“Yes, those are by far, the worst engineer records I’ve ever seen in decades of railroading,” said another expert, who asked to remain anonymous because he works for another railroad and fears retaliation.
Inside Keolis, executives had been warned about the problems in their corps of engineers.
In the preliminary safety audit submitted to the Keolis general manager, David Scorey, in November, McCarthy, then the executive in charge of safety, pointed out that motor vehicle regulators had identified many of the company’s engineers as “habitual offenders’’ because of repeated speeding violations on their personal driving records.
Even so, McCarthy wrote, the company has not decertified — that is, declared unfit for service — any engineers for speeding on the rails during the history of the Keolis contract.
“This is highly suspicious given the propensity of our employees to speed [on the job],” he wrote.
Excessive speed has been the cause of several fatal railroad accidents across the country, including a 2013 crash in the Bronx that killed four and injured 61 and a crash in Philadelphia in 2015 that killed eight and injured more than 200.
About 100,000 people ride Keolis’s commuter rail system each day, completely in the dark about the driving history of the engineer behind the controls.
“I can’t talk now, I’m too shocked,” commuter Mary Connaughton said after hearing a description of some of the engineers’ driving records.
“What’s it going to take, a train wreck for Keolis and the T to get ahead of this and put public safety first?” asked Connaughton — a former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board member — when she later called back.
While Keolis and MBCR have reported few major incidents, records show at least 80 engineers have committed serious infractions while on the job — safety violations that include failing alcohol or drug tests, running stop signals, and causing derailments, records show.
For example, an engineer who was legally drunk operated a train for several hours last fall before she ran a stop signal and was removed from service. She was found to have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.113, according to someone with direct knowledge.
Records show the two companies have disciplined engineers more than 150 times since around 2005 for on-the-job infractions. Engineers with poor personal driving records account for more than two-thirds of the violations.
Wayne Daley, who had amassed 10 personal speeding tickets, racked up so many infractions at work — eight — that he was dismissed by MBCR in 2007, according to company records. But according to Keolis, Daley was rehired and is still employed as an engineer.
Marion Kennedy chalked up 11 speeding tickets, got into two accidents, and had his license suspended nine times. Keolis made him an engineer in 2015, and suspended him last May for 30 days for running a stop signal on the train.
“Running through a stop signal, running through a switch on a main track, and failure to stop are all examples of rules infractions that could result in injury or death,” said Hughes, the former Amtrak official. “They are of the highest importance. “
While the company insists that safety is its top priority, the Federal Railroad Administration and the MBTA itself have raised concerns about its compliance with federal safety rules and the terms of its contract with the T.
The FRA, which regulates railroads, has fined Keolis some $350,000 for violations that include leaving trains unsecured, operating moving trains with a door or doors open, and failing to conduct all engineer performance testing required under federal law, records show.
A Keolis spokesman said the FRA audited engineers’ records in the spring and found only “minor areas for improvement.”
After a car broke free from a moving commuter train in September, the MBTA found that Keolis failed to properly investigate the incident. This prompted an FRA fine and criticism from the MBTA.
Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said the agency “steadfastly holds” the commuter rail contractor accountable for providing safe and reliable service.
“Because safety is of paramount importance, the MBTA closely monitors the contract under which Keolis manages a qualified workforce that is in full compliance with all Federal Railroad Administration regulations,” Pesaturo said in a statement. “The commuter rail operator has demonstrated its strong commitment to safety through significant investments in equipment, training, and personnel.”
Some suspect that Keolis may feel financial pressure to keep engineers on the job even when they have problems at work.
Under its operators agreement with the MBTA, the company is penalized when a train is late or canceled. If an engineer is removed from service, the on-time performance may suffer.
A longtime issue
Experts say the problems with the commuter rail and its workforce go way back — before Keolis took over the $2.7 billion contract in 2014.
Upon taking over the rail operation, Keolis, a French company, had just a few months to decide whom to retain from its inherited workforce, officials from both companies said.
And once hired or retained, employees are rarely, if ever, terminated — regardless of their personal history or work record.
Experts say that if a railroad wanted to impose order and discipline, it could refuse to promote an employee with a poor driving record, or could subject such a driver to increased testing. In extreme cases, the railroad could fire the employee for conduct unbecoming an employee under a clause in the company’s contract with the MBTA.
Governor Charlie Baker has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with Keolis’s performance, and transportation officials have said they will not automatically extend the company’s contract when it expires in June 2022.
David Gunn, the former chief executive of Amtrak, which once operated the Massachusetts commuter rail system, said the large number of engineers with bad driving records points to a deep problem.
“You really need to change the culture of the place,” said Gunn, who also ran transit agencies in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Toronto. Of all the places he worked, Gunn said, “the T was the most challenging in terms of controlling the workforce. Not that they were all bad people, but the structure and the union and political meddling in management decision-making was the absolute worst at the T.”
“My sense is Baker is trying to clean it up,” Gunn added. “But I don’t think they understand how to do it.”