Oct. 28--When BART track inspector James Strickland was hit and killed in 2008 by a train he didn't think was coming, BART officials promised to look into technology that could alert workers when danger was headed their way.
In the end, the agency rejected everything on the market, sticking with a procedure under which workers were given no warning of oncoming trains and were solely responsible for their own safety.
In 2010, California regulators -- citing a National Transportation Safety Board finding and more than 40 worker deaths on U.S. railways since 1997 -- urged BART and other rail operators to install worker-warning devices used by transit systems in Boston and Baltimore.
But the rail agencies resisted, and the state backed off. State regulators reported that the agencies told them that "workers may become overly dependent on the devices" and lose their safety focus.
Now, after the deaths of workers Chris Sheppard and Laurence Daniels last weekend -- the third and fourth to be killed on its tracks since 2001 -- BART says it will take another look at the technology it shunned.
"Given the size and complexity of our system, technology may or may not prove applicable," said Paul Oversier, BART's director of operations. "But we are definitely interested in looking into it."
BART also has started restricting train speeds through job sites to 27 mph. In some cases, it will halt trains altogether or single-track them.
All the measures, BART concedes, are likely to affect the system's on-time performance.
BART has not been alone in resisting technology that alerts workers to oncoming trains. The American Public Transportation Association trade group issued a standard in 2011 with "very strong caveats" about such devices, saying they should be used "only as a backup or overlay" to existing safety measures.
At BART, those measures include having someone on a work crew act as a spotter who can see a train when it is 15 seconds away. Crews must also plot a potential escape route before they start work.
Three years after the California Public Utilities Commission's staff first urged BART and other local transit agencies to look at worker-alert technology, the agency concluded that "no system has yet been tested comprehensively enough to confidently implement as safe."
Others buy in
Some transit agencies, however, have embraced warning devices. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston and the Maryland Transit Administration in Baltimore, among others, use radio-based alert systems that activate when trains come within a certain distance.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which runs light-rail trains in the South Bay, tested a GPS-based warning device for track workers last year, made by Emtrac Systems of Illinois, and is taking steps to put such a system out to bid.
Under the system, track workers are equipped with alarms that sound and vibrate when a train is 15 seconds away. The light-rail train driver and supervisors receive similar warnings.
Arthur Douwes, head of maintenance engineering for the Santa Clara VTA, said such systems are not foolproof. Signals can be obstructed by high-rise buildings, or the estimate of the train's arrival can be a few seconds off. He said the technology would be a backup to the VTA's safety measures, which include having a worker with a flag alert a train operator if a repair crew is on the tracks.
"As a backup, secondary measure, it's workable," Douwes said of the warning devices. "We have to make sure it's the secondary (process) because we don't want workers to get a false sense of security."
Emtrac said other transit agencies have been slow to adopt its product.
"We've been trying to sell it, but nobody is looking after workers for rail safety until the federal regulations require it," said Richard D'Alessandro, vice president of operations for Emtrac. "Most of them just say they don't have the money; it's not in their budget.