The Muni operator who rear-ended a train at the West Portal station in July 2009, injuring 47 people and costing The City nearly $5 million, had been suspended four times in the two years prior to the accident, including once for a similar incident that occurred at the same site.
Henry Gray, a 30-year Muni veteran, lost control of the train after switching from automatic mode to manual control, a maneuver called a cutout. The train being operated by Gray, a two-car L-Taraval, ran into the back of a stationary K-Ingleside. Gray also was injured in the crash. The operator, who was hospitalized, said he blacked out while driving the train, raising questions about his physical health.
Although cutouts were not officially sanctioned, operators such as Gray used them to save time leaving the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which connects downtown San Francisco with West Portal station.
Two years earlier, Gray was suspended for a similar incident involving a cutout. On Aug. 24, 2007, Muni management recommended Gray for a five-day suspension after he inadvertently connected his train to another idling train while performing a cutout at West Portal, according to reports gathered by the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the crash. After appealing the decision, Gray’s suspension was reduced to two days.
But there were several other incidents that marked Gray’s performance record. In January 2009, he was suspended for two days for passing up passengers on his route. Two months later, he was suspended for two days for failing to stop at mandatory areas. In May 2008, Gray was suspended for low marks on an inspection report.
Though Gray is no longer employed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, his track record and health issues raised questions as to why he was still operating a light-rail vehicle in 2009.
Gray was cleared medically by the SFMTA through 2010, but in an interview with NTSB inspectors he admitted he “blacked out” right after shifting his train into manual control. He said the last thing he remembered was the vehicle moving at 5 mph before it smashed into another train at the platform. However, a Muni inspector said Gray’s train was moving at 15 mph at the time of the incident.
Gray said he was having a “beautiful day” prior to the accident, although he told NTSB inspectors that he was taking four different types of medication at the time of the crash. However, he later revised that statement to say he was taking two types of medication, including one prescription drug for Type 2 diabetes. He told investigators that he had never blacked out before.
Following the West Portal crash, NTSB inspectors inquired about the health regulations of Muni operators, who must pass basic physicals in order to work. San Francisco General Hospital, which conducts the health tests, did not have detailed information on the medical backgrounds of drivers.
Also following the accident, the SFMTA ordered a crackdown on all cutouts at the West Portal station, resulting in the number of such instances dropping from 1,535 in July to 11 in August.
Gray has not been employed by the SFMTA since at least spring. The terms of his departure have not been released. Walter Scott, secretary-treasurer of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators, said he did not know the specifics of Gray’s suspensions so he could not comment. He did say that SFMTA management encouraged operators to make cutouts at the West Portal station.
Expenses nearing $5M, likely to climb
Overall costs have already neared $5 million for the 2009 West Portal Muni crash, and with 26 lawsuits still pending, the incident is only going to become more expensive for Muni.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, was billed $4.49 million by a private train manufacturer to repair the two light-rail vehicles damaged in the collision, according to documents gathered by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The legal costs have been significantly less, although that could change in the future. So far, the City Attorney’s Office has awarded $305,186 to 25 claimants injured in the crash.
A total of 27 lawsuits were filed against The City related to the crash, and to date only one of those suits — a $10,000 judgment — has been paid and finalized, according to Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office.
Combined, the repair costs and legal payouts related to the crash have amounted to $4,806,736.
West Portal crash cash
Costs and lawsuits are still pending after the 2009 Muni accident.
Sources: SFMTA, NTSB, City Attorney’s Office