William Robinson was at a diner after an overnight shift doing maintenance on Amtrak’s rails when he got a phone call that sent him rushing back to the work site.
Train 89, from New York to Savannah, Ga., struck a 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. It didn’t take long for Robinson to realize he would be held at least partially responsible.
“I was walking up the road because I was trying to find out what happened, and they all looked at me and never said a word and walked away from me,” he said of the workers in the aftermath of the derailment.
Workers should have never been near a track carrying trains. Whether Robinson, the foreman on the shift before the crash, or John Yaeger, the foreman at the time of the crash, bears responsibility is a question unanswered by the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation. Investigators documented conflicting stories between the two foremen.
Now, awaiting the results of a disciplinary hearing last Wednesday, Robinson, 43, says he is being treated unfairly, and any errors he may have made were the result of a culture that made safety a secondary consideration.
“There are many things that are done that I guess you would say aren’t safe,” Robinson said.
Robinson expects a ruling on whether he will keep his job by mid-May. The nearly five-hour hearing included accusations that he violated rules before the crash, he said. He doesn’t dispute some of them. Yes, he failed to use shunts, devices that alert dispatchers to workers on the track. Yes, he used his cellphone instead of a radio to communicate with dispatchers.
These violations were the norm at Amtrak’s work sites, though, he said. There was a level of disorganization that Amtrak workers had become used to, he said, and Robinson says he is a scapegoat for systemic issues.
Less than a month ago, Amtrak’s top executive, Wick Moorman, said the company needed to improve safety on the rails. Along with safety training for supervisors, the rail agency has created a department focused on safety compliance for track workers, and plans to expand its scope, an Amtrak spokeswoman said. It and the Federal Railroad Administration are reviewing rules and procedures that can be improved. Since the crash, Amtrak has introduced a form that foremen must jointly fill out at shift changes to document safety tasks.
Meanwhile, Robinson said, Amtrak limited his ability to present evidence at his hearing, and didn’t clear his witnesses to receive paid leave to testify on his behalf until the morning of the hearing. Robinson, who is black, has also filed a discrimination complaint against Amtrak with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, saying he has faced discrimination at work.
The rail agency would not speak about Robinson’s case, but said employees can submit evidence in their defense, which can be reviewed by an independent arbitrator.
Yaeger, who has decades of experience with Amtrak, said in an interview with the NTSB that Robinson, who had worked there for about three years, was in the wrong the day of the crash. 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,” Yaeger said in his statement to the NTSB. “I assumed everything was still fouled because I didn't hear nothing.”
Robinson, though, said Yaeger saw and heard him on the phone with a dispatcher releasing protections on the rail. He said he then told Yaeger foul time had been lifted and would need to be reinstated for the next shift. His one regret, he said, was not staying on site to make sure Yaeger restored the safety protections.
Attempts to reach Yaeger through the union representing both foremen were not successful.
Amtrak would not say whether Yaeger is going through a disciplinary process similar to Robinson’s, saying only that he is on a leave of absence.