Septa: Trolley Driver Chatting Before Crash

Posted: December 04, 1986

The operator of the SEPTA trolley that crashed Aug. 23 at 69th Street Terminal failed to respond adequately immediately prior to the accident

because he was distracted, according to a SEPTA report.

Testimony yesterday at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the crash showed that an unidentified man was sitting on the operator's stool near operator Albert Cheshire in the front of the car. Two passengers said the man was sketching Cheshire and talking with him.

"The presence of this individual and the conversation with the operator severely impaired the benefit of privacy on the operating platform on August 23, 1986," the SEPTA report said.

"An operator ought to have an atmosphere of no distractions to ensure that his performance will be at maximum efficiency."

Cheshire, who was fired by SEPTA two weeks after the crash, was hailed by union officials and some passengers for warning passengers to prepare themselves for the collision.

A SEPTA official told the safety board yesterday that Cheshire left the power on while applying the brakes, then failed to take prescribed emergency measures to prevent the crash.

"Unfortunately, in this case the power prevailed over the brakes," said Frank Wilson, SEPTA's assistant general manager for operations.

"What happened was, the controller got hung up - it was not really in the off position," Wilson said. "The operator left the control handle in an on position. The car drew power even after his attempts to apply the brakes, which we now know after the results of the investigation were working perfectly . . . .

"Every aspect of the braking system - the air brake, the emergency brake and the hand brake - functioned perfectly."

Wilson demonstrated on the power controller used as an exhibit at the hearing in the Adam's Mark Hotel that the handle can stick on the "points" on the dial, failing to return to the off position. If it does not return to the off position after reaching full power, the full power continues, Wilson said.

As a result, car No. 167 continued to run even after Cheshire applied the brakes, beginning at the Beechwood-Brookline Station, according to the SEPTA report made public yesterday.

At 3:42 p.m., the trolley entered 69th Street Terminal "at a fast rate of speed," then sheared off a bumping post and crashed through the station concourse wall, the report said.

Of the 55 passengers on board, some 50 complained of injuries and 11 were admitted to hospitals.

Limping on the leg he fractured in the crash, Cheshire yesterday demonstrated how he rushed back and forth in the trolley, setting the emergency and hand brakes, then telling the passengers to run to the back of the trolley and brace themselves.

Cheshire, 31, of Upper Darby, insisted that he "made sure" the Norristown High-Speed Line trolley's power controller "was in the off position."

It was Cheshire's first public statement since the accident. His union, Local 1594 of the United Transportation Union, is going to arbitration over his firing, and Cheshire refused to expand on his answers to questions during his two hours as a witness before the safety board.

SEPTA charges that Cheshire, a four-year SEPTA bus and rail driver, while taking several steps, failed to continue to the next emergency steps called for by its rule book - cutting off power in the car and putting the motor into reverse.

Because of an open microphone elsewhere in the system, Cheshire's radio calls for assistance went unanswered, evidence showed.

As a result of the accident, Wilson said, SEPTA has installed an additional fail-safe device on the trolleys. Called the power knock-out device, it automatically cuts the power to the motor once the air brake is turned to the emergency position or the emergency hand brake is applied.

In addition, the points where the controller handle might stick have been filed off the dials since the accident, according to trolley operator Theodore

Mills.

In his testimony, Cheshire said that in his most recent recertification examination, in June, supervisor Walter Simcox failed to explain or discuss a question on the written test about reversing the motor while the trolley was under way, known as "jacking the motor." The procedure was not demonstrated during the field portion of the examination, Simcox conceded.

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