Amtrak fires rail worker over Chester train derailment

An Amtrak rail worker was fired Tuesday for his part in a 2016 train derailment in Chester that killed two men working on the tracks.

An Amtrak internal disciplinary hearing cited William Robinson, 43, for failing to use devices that would have warned coming trains of the presence of workers on the tracks, didn’t perform a required safety briefing, improperly released protections that would have kept trains from traveling on tracks where workers were present, and didn’t communicate with a dispatcher properly, using a cellphone instead of his radio.

The internal hearing concluded that Robinson’s actions directly contributed to the derailment.

“As a result,” the hearing officer, Frances Krische, wrote, “Train 89 was routed to travel on track 3 and was traveling at a speed of 106 mph when it collided with a backhoe, resulting in numerous injuries and deaths.”

Train 89, from New York to Savannah, Ga., struck the backhoe at 7:51 a.m., April 3, 2016, in Chester, at the site Robinson had left just minutes before. Two Amtrak workers, Joe Carter and a supervisor, Peter Adamovich, were killed.

The internal hearing came to a conclusion before the National Transportation Safety Board had completed its investigation of the crash and released its probable cause, which provides a detailed overview of the factors that contributed to a train accident. Amtrak would not comment Tuesday on whether it was common practice to mete out discipline before the conclusion of the federal inquiry.

The decision was lambasted by Mark Schwartz, Robinson’s Bryn Mawr-based lawyer, who noted that although Robinson has been penalized, the foreman on the job at the time of the derailment, John Yager, has not been punished and is on a leave of absence, according to Amtrak. Robinson is black, while Yager is white, and Schwartz contends that is relevant.

“Mr. Yager remains uncharged internally,” he said. “In my experience with Amtrak, it’s about one set of rules for whites and another for blacks.”

Robinson has also filed a discrimination complaint against Amtrak with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, saying he has faced discrimination at work.

The Amtrak internal review faulted Robinson for releasing his fouls -  protections that inform a dispatcher that people are at work on the railroad - for three tracks along the work site without first clearing personnel from the tracks. He released the fouls at 7:29 a.m. the morning of the derailment and, he said, then left the work site.

Documents released by the NTSB include two differing accounts of who had responsibility for the work scene at the time of the derailment. Robinson told investigators that he had a conversation with Yager specifically about releasing protections on the railroad, and that he told Yager he had released foul time and Yager would have to reinstate the protections.

Yager, meanwhile, told federal investigators Robinson had removed “foul time,” protections on the rails, without his knowledge, he said.

“Last I talked to Mr. Robinson, he had a foul on all three tracks,” Yager said in his statement to the NTSB. “I assumed everything was still fouled because I didn't hear nothing.”

Robinson did not dispute that he did not use other protections while working the night before the crash. Shunts, devices that alert dispatchers to the presence of workers, and whistle boards, signs warning a train engineer there may be people ahead, were not being used. But Yager didn't use them, either, according to NTSB documents, and Robinson noted that the equipment wasn’t available at the work site for a rail-cleaning project that was planned to cover multiple shifts over 55 hours.

Even before the internal investigation was completed, Robinson had raised concerns about a lack of support from his union. He had trouble getting witnesses he wanted to testify on his behalf and was denied requests to enter as evidence documents of missteps made by other Amtrak workers.

“It’s about a union that didn't want to defend my client in the first place, wondering why he simply did not quit,” Schwartz said. 

Jed Dodd, general chairman of the Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way division of the Teamsters, did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

An Amtrak spokesman said he could not discuss personnel matters.

Robinson’s overall defense centered on demonstrating there was a culture at Amtrak that ignored safety. It was an argument Krische did not accept.

“You were the foreman and the employee in charge,” she wrote, “and as such you were responsible for the workers on the tracks.”