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A train did derail on March 26. Nelson won’t comment about whether the railroad was warned of problems at the site, but says the accident was minor and caused no injuries.
"I was on that train. It was in the evening. There was never any danger. The passengers got some free candy and sodas" as they waited for another train to come and take them to the depot, Nelson says. He adds passengers "were cheering as we pulled back into the depot" about an hour and a half late. He says the derailment was reported immediately to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Some 4.6 miles of track were taken out of service for a month after the derailment, according to Heber Valley records obtained by The Tribune through an open records request.
Demotion, firing • Montoya says when he returned to work July 8, Nelson told him, "Gene I don’t know what to do with you. I’d be a fool to put you with [the supervisor he complained about] after the safety concerns you raised. Go home." He says he was brought back to work two days later, and told he would be a shop laborer and no longer was a track inspector/foreman.
He says he was put to work on top of 14-foot-high train cars cleaning them with compressed air with his bad hand. He complained ladders were not tall enough to reach the top and he ended up falling off a car.
Montoya raised his concerns about workplace safety with OSHA and track safety with the Utah Department of Transportation. OSHA made an inspection on July 25, and UDOT made one on July 29, records show.
OSHA found what it called 18 "serious" violations, but issued no fines. Records show they included: numerous violations for not protecting employees working around asbestos in cars, using highly compressed air for cleaning, employees working on roof of trains without fall protection, using forklift operators who were not certified, and a lack of safety protection on a variety of shop equipment.
"They are all issues that we are resolving," Nelson says, "and will be fully compliant." He adds some shop tools and machinery it uses on the old trains is more than 50 years old and "were built before there was an OSHA" and lack safety guards it is working to provide.
Montoya says the day after the OSHA inspection, he was sent home for a week without explanation. He says he came back for a day, was sent to pull weeds on the road with his bad hand, fainted in the heat, and was taken to a hospital. The next day he was fired without explanation, a letter of dismissal he has shows.
Rail inspection • Because Montoya had complained to UDOT that Heber Valley lacked rail inspections, UDOT conducted an inspection on July 29.
"One of the key elements is that our inspector did find out that Mr. Montoya was relieved of his duty," says Robert Hull, engineer for traffic and safety for the agency that oversees highways and rails. So UDOT’s official asked who was Heber Valley’s inspector. "They informed him that they didn’t have one. He [the UDOT official] informed them that was a serious oversight."
Inspection forms show that UDOT cited Heber Valley for not inspecting tracks with required frequency, and for failing to keep proper written records of inspections.
Nelson says Heber Valley has since hired a contractor to inspect the track weekly. He says before that (and after Montoya was injured), "We had employees inspecting, and then we had a couple of third parties do inspections. I believe in the 18 months that I have been in charge of the railroad there’s been perhaps one week that we haven’t [inspected tracks]. We’ve never gone longer than two weeks."
However, Montoya not only claims that few adequate track inspections were occurring, but also that any problems found were not fixed but were mitigated merely by putting a "slow order" for the train to go slower than 5 mph or 10 mph in such areas.
Heber Valley documents obtained by The Tribune show that since Montoya quit inspecting in November 2012, "slow orders" were implemented at four different points on the line. The shortest lasted three days, and the longest was for five months — but one was lifted only because the train discontinued going on that part of the track during winter.
Safe? • Some records back Nelson’s assertion that the Heber Valley Railroad has a safe record.
UDOT inspects the rails every few months. Hull describes that as a "quality assurance" step mostly to ensure the railroad itself is inspecting and maintaining the tracks.
UDOT has an extra interest because the state owns the tracks, but leases them to the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority — an independent agency set up by the Legislature to operate the train. It is governed by an eight-member board whose membership is set by state law, and must include such officials as the mayors of Heber and Midway.Next Page >
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