Representatives of the San Francisco Bay Area's transit rail system and its striking unions returned to the bargaining table Monday, raising hopes among the region's frustrated commuters that a four-day work stoppage that has gridlocked highways and doubled travel times is about to end.
Bay Area Rapid Transit officials hoped to have an agreement in place by Monday evening so trains could begin running on the system's 104 miles of track by Tuesday, BART spokesman Rick Rice said. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 President Antonette Bryant confirmed the talks but declined to comment further.
ATU represents station agents, train operators and clerical workers who walked off the job early Friday along with mechanics and maintenance workers represented by the Service Employees International Union. Contract negotiations had broken down over work rules for scheduled hours and overtime.
Area residents who endured long lines for crowded buses and ferries into San Francisco on Monday offered differing opinions on which side bore more blame for the impasse, but they were unanimous in the view that the public was being unfairly hurt and that the strike had to end.
"We need BART to be running right now," Karen Wormley said as she waited for a bus at a BART station in the East Bay city of Walnut Creek, where the line was at least hundred-people deep before dawn. "I need to get to work."
Federal investigators, meanwhile, were searching for clues to a weekend train accident that killed a BART worker and a contractor who were struck by an out-of-service train while inspecting an above-ground section of track in Walnut Creek.
The Contra Costa County coroner's office identified the victims as Laurence Daniels, 66, of Fair Oaks and Christopher Sheppard, 58, of Hayward.
The four-car train was not carrying any passengers due to the strike. BART has said it had dropped off some vandalized cars to be cleaned and was returning to a train yard under computer control Saturday when it hit the two men. They are the sixth and seventh BART workers to die on the job in the system's 41-year history.
Two National Transportation Safety Board investigators were looking into the accident. It could take several weeks to determine if the work stoppage or the way BART management deployed non-striking workers played a role in the fatalities, said Jim Southworth, the NTSB's railroad accident investigator-in-charge.
The ongoing investigation at the collision site could delay the resumption of service there if the strike's end is imminent, Southworth said.
Oklahoma State University transportation engineering professor Samir Ahmed, who has studied rail transit safety, said he would be surprised if the strike did not somehow factor into the accident.
"When you have a strike like what is happening at BART now, communications are poor in general," he said. "The strike environment causes confusion."
That the two inspectors were hit by a train shows that critical information was not relayed either to the workers on the track or the people operating the train, Ahmed said.
"There should have been someone at the controls there talking to the workers and talking to the train engineer," he said. "Something did not did not go right, and if it is their policy to have this kind of maintenance during a strike they should have communicated that to the engineers."