Probe shows transit agency has weary operators at helm

The Associated Press /

PORTLAND — The head of the Portland region’s transit agency has called for an internal audit of overtime and says he’ll make a priority of fighting driver fatigue following a newspaper investigation of drivers falling asleep at the helm of buses and light-rail trains.

The Oregonian reported it has documented instances of TriMet bus operators working up to 22 hours in a 24-hour period to fill open shifts and make overtime pay. It said riders, motorists and TriMet supervisors had reported operators nodding off.

Among other incidents, a MAX operator fell asleep at the controls and crashed a 100-ton train at the end of the line in October 2011. The operator told the newspaper he was working with chronic fatigue.

Although operators are limited to 17 hours during a service day, they can work 12 hours or more until 2 a.m. at the end of one service day and clock back in at 4 a.m. to work another long shift during the next service day.

The newspaper published the results of its investigation on Sunday.

On Monday, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said in a memo to staff that the article “should find us all reflecting on how we run our business and, without blame or fault, asking ourselves hard questions about how we can improve.”

McFarlane was named general manager just after an April 2010 accident in which a bus driver made an illegal left turn and hit five pedestrians, killing two.

McFarlane said the issue of fatigue would be on the “A list” in upcoming contract negotiations with the operators union.

He also called for an internal audit to review compliance with procedures for calling in operators for overtime. He said operators should turn down overtime “If there is a real risk of fatigue setting in,” and other employees should be watchful.

A leader of the operators union blamed dysfunctional management for destroying what he said was once the nation’s best transit system.

“TriMet employees have had enough — enough of being blamed when something goes wrong and watching upper management take credit when something goes right,” Amalgamated Transit Union 757 President Bruce Hansen said in a public statement.

The Oregonian reported that a hiring freeze and 10 percent absenteeism have created more opportunities for overtime, and the number of drivers earning more than $100,000 a year has gone from zero to eight in three years — including one who made nearly $117,000 in fiscal year 2012.

The newspaper said it did an eight-month investigation during which the agency resisted its efforts to gain access to information and turned over the complete record of the 2011 MAX crash only after the paper appealed successfully to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.