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North County Transit District Rebuts KPBS/inewsource Investigation

The SPRINTER rail line runs between Escondido and Oceanside.
The SPRINTER rail line runs between Escondido and Oceanside.
NCTD Response
North County Transit District Rebuts KPBS/inewsource Investigation
inewsource Reporter Brad RacinoMatthew Tucker, Executive Director, North County Transit District

CAVANAUGH: The sprinter rail line was taken out of service earlier this year. An inspection found wear that did not meet standards of compliance. An I-Source investigation found a budget fund designated for the coaster and rail lines was not in the damage for 2013. The investigations desk was also told that officials at North County Transit was informed about the problems well before the utilities commission found the wear that led to the shutdown. That and other findings in the investigation have been found unacceptable by the North County Transit District. Matthew Tucker is executive director of the North County Transit district. Welcome to the program. TUCKER: Thank you for having me. CAVANAUGH: And inewsource reporter Brad Racino joins us. RACINO: Thank, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Now, Matthew, let's start with some basic questions. How much is the repair to the sprinter's brake rotors going to cost? TUCKER: Approximately $400,000 or so. CAVANAUGH: Is that for both the replacement parts and the labor just the replacement parts? TUCKER: Just the replacement parts. CAVANAUGH: How much is the labor going to cost? TUCKER: I could not tell you. CAVANAUGH: So $400,000-plus. TUCKER: Yes. CAVANAUGH: Where is the money coming from? TUCKER: We have plenty of financial capacity to afford the rotors. It will come from our maintenance budget. CAVANAUGH: From the maintenance budget. TUCKER: Yes. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Is there a line there for maintenance in the budget? TUCKER: Yeah, if you take a look, we have a -- we contract for the maintenance of the sprinter vehicle. The purchase of parts that support all of our operations is done primarily through our contractors. We have the financial capacity to easily afford $400,000 to replace the rotors. CAVANAUGH: How about the plus? TUCKER: And the labor plus. Just from a practical point of view, NCTD is in a very good financial position. We present a balance, we have a $5.5million contingency in our budget that has not been tapped and a reserve. Our last two years have been some of the highest capital programs in the history of the organization. CAVANAUGH: Now, Brad, let me go to you. What do the budget documents tell us about maintenance funding in the 2013 budget? RACINO: If the fiscal year 2012 budget which presents five years for capital, in the 2013 budget there was a line item for sprinter vehicle system overhaul which would have replaced the rotors. That was $1.37million and additional funding years going forward. In the next year's budget, that line item is gone. There's nothing in it in that year or the years looking forward. CAVANAUGH: That's one of the points of contention here. We just were looking at the budget, one year it had it, next year it did not, and where'd it go? TUCKER: First let's talk about the problem that resulted in the sprinter being shut down. What Brad has identified was an overhaul program that was going to take place for the vehicles. So we're talking about vehicles that are approximately five years old. The rotor problem that we experienced and that was identified about three years ago by the contractors and our engineers was something that was not expected. That was something that required replacement probably 2-3 years ago. And so you cannot connect the overhaul project that we had with the issue that we're dealing with now. The overhaul, yes, included rotors. But the problem that we had was premature wear that was not expected to occur as a result of how the vehicle was designed. CAVANAUGH: Let me talk about that, Brad. So you had a source that told you about when sprinter officials got the word that there were problems with the brake wear. RACINO: Right. And it's no secret who the source it. It's Dick Burk who was the engineer at the time. And he had told me and others have told me that they found out about this problem less than a year after the sprinter began service. And they began planning for it. Dick Burk along with one of the subcontractors for them, in an e-mail Dick Burk explains that they canned a proposal years ago, three years ago, for the split disks, for this to be fixed and they budgeted that in the sprinter overhaul, which you see in the budget. And if you go to NCTD's recent draft for their new year, it specifically lays out what that overhaul would do, and it says replace rotors and brake pads. CAVANAUGH: So you say that that's not the truth. TUCKER: No, it's really -- to think about the logical respect identified, this was an overhaul program that was going to take place after the vehicle was approximately five years old. What we identified was premature wear. Mr. Burk's e-mail and communication that Brad is reading clearly states that he identified through informal inquiries about the cost of the split disk. The split disk represents a change in the design from the current vehicle. It is an interim fix to deal with the fact that we had premature unexpected wear of the vehicle. So the right thing would have been if you purchase a new car, try to make it simple, and you would assume that you would have an overhaul after five years for the vehicle, but if you had premature wear of one component such as a rotor of your car, you wouldn't replace the entire wheels and brakes and systems of the car. You would just deal with the problem. So what needed to be purchased were the split disk rotors, and it has been clearly identified in the public record that it was determined not by anyone at NCTD management that it was felt that the cost was too high, and the purchase was not made, and no document was ever submitted for split disk rotors. CAVANAUGH: That goes counter to the information we got from your former mechanical maintenance offer. But even if what you're saying is the way it is, granted what you're saying for a moment, why was that line taken out of the 2013 budget? TUCKER: And this is where we're sort of taking disparate pieces of information and trying to create a narrative that didn't exist. For 2013, we took money that was identified for buses and used it for sprinter rail vehicles. We replaced a washing system, we replaced seats for the sprinter. Our capital program if you understand it, and the way the process really work, the year that it's actually been funded is the year that is actually a solid number. Everything that happens in year two, three, four, five, is subject to the actual funding. Mr. A practical point of view, what we try to mix those two issues over a long-term overhaul need for a vehicle with something that was unexpected, we're going down a road that just doesn't connect with the facts or the circumstance. CAVANAUGH: Wasn't that maintenance that was in the 2012 budget, wasn't that supposed to be a 4-year plan? TUCKER: Yes. RACINO: Yes. The money was spread out over the next four years for the sprinter. CAVANAUGH: And it wasn't in the next year's budget. RACINO: Correct. It wasn't in any of the four years in that badge. TUCKER: The bottom line is we have the financial capacity. CAVANAUGH: But why is it not in the 2013 budget? Why? TUCKER: Well, again, let's go back. We're creating a narrative that is not based upon the facts. CAVANAUGH: Is there no simple answer to this? TUCKER: The simple answer is that the rotors failed prematurely. The replacement parts for the rotor is a split disk rotor. It costs $400,000. It is not connected at all with the overhaul project. It's just not. I can't create a narrative to fit a premise that someone else created. I'm giving you the facts. The fact. The matter is, we simply needed to place the rotors that have worn prematurely at a cost of $400,000, and we would have easily done that if that capital can had been made. If this had been even identified as a part that needed to be purchased. Because our current vehicles don't have split disk rotors on them. This represents a change from the current design of the vehicle. CAVANAUGH: Josh is calling from Escondido. Welcome to the program. JOSH: Hello. CAVANAUGH: Hi. JOSH: I'm calling to ask a question. CAVANAUGH: Yes, right now. JOSH: What is it in your culture and information gathering that allows such significant issues like poor maintenance and shutdown of the sprinter to happen? CAVANAUGH: That's a question from Josh, I think it's directed to Matthew. TUCKER: In this particular instance, we have been looking and trying to understand how the situation occurred. Candidly, totally caught all of us off-guard. One of the maintenance practices, if you were to look at the inspection sheets, the inspection sheets don't identify at any point that there was a problem, none whatsoever. So even the audits that we do separately could not have identified it because they didn't identify the problem. One of the things that we changed already as part of the process for everything is for you to quantitatively write it down. And we are making changes, we're requiring our contractor to make changes within his maintenance information system to document that information to use it for training purposes. Because the bottom line of it is, you step back and look at it today, yeah, there are lots of things you wish you could have and should have known, then you say, okay, let's see what additional steps we can take to make sure that this doesn't happen again. The caller brings a good comment up about the culture of safety. That is something that we have discussed with our contractors because we've identified that the contractor employees did know as well as our employee. And the assumption was, well, these folks know it, so it must be okay. And we raised the basic question, no, any time that we know something is happening that shouldn't be happening, we need people to continue to report it up to the chain of command. So one of the things we're doing is creating a hotline for both our direct and contracted employees to call us to report any safety concerns or other concerns that they have to stay on top of these issues. CAVANAUGH: Brad, what did your report learn about how far up the chain of command these problems were being reported? RACINO: Well, that's an interesting question. Dick Burk had three different supervisors in three different years. His field underwent reorganization four different times. According to him and according to someone at the subcontractor, they knew about this three years ago, Dick Burk along with his supervisors, along with the people on the ground that worked for at least the last three years to have these split disks replaced. So as far as the chain of command goes, I've been told that many people knew about this and went up the chain of command. Maybe it did not reach Mr. Tucker. But that speaks to the culture of the agency when you have someone on the ground level that does not know what's going on. CAVANAUGH: Should these have been replaced three years ago? TUCKER: Yes. One of the comments I think is important, none of the sources that he's speaking to have ever been identified. RACINO: I just identified Dick Burk. CAVANAUGH: Beyond Mr. Burk, one of your sources is a former disgruntled employee who was a supervisor of Mr. Burk. And so as one of the questions you should answer, since you had the opportunity to talk to that employee, he would have known. And did that employee tell you that as a matter of your investigation that he was aware of it? That's a question for you. RACINO: I don't know which one you're talking about. CAVANAUGH: The supervisor of Mr. Burk. RACINO: He had three supervisors. TUCKER: One of your sources is a former employee of NCTD. RACINO: Three are. TUCKER: Mr. Burk forwarded your e-mail and the communication to us, and shared it with us. One of the questions I have for you, one of the individuals in a high-ranking position, overall responsible for submitting the capital budget, did you ask that individual if he was aware of this? What was your communication with him? RACINO: Yes, I did. No, he did not say that. The other one did. TUCKER: Okay. CAVANAUGH: Why would your supervisors not come to you or the board with information about the brake rotors on the train wearing out? That doesn't seem to make any sense. TUCKER: And that's why I would say you have to be careful with your sources, former disgruntled employees. RACINO: They're all former employees. TUCKER: And people who are willing to name themselves and speak on the record. What we're being asked to do is to respond to people who have different motivations who never have to be accountable for anything they say. What I know going through this process and working with our contractors and talking with the staff, partly would have been created as a new narrative that sort of confuses the long-term overhaul issue needs with this issue. Because split disk or not, they're not on the vehicle today. There's a solid disk rotor on the vehicle today. This is a design change and this is something that needed to occur 2-3 years ago, well ahead of the overhaul program. CAVANAUGH: I'm thinking of this from the point of view of the listeners. I think a question that occurs to me is one I've already asked. If people in your organization knew that there was brake wear on the sprinter, why, why did that information not get to you? It doesn't make any sense. TUCKER: Here's the candid answer that we've already stated publicly. We can't really identify, because there was on the inspection reports never any problem identified with the wear of the rotors. So you can look from the internal information that the contractor would make available to us, on top of that you would look at the fact that the California public utilities commission has come in and done inspections over and over. You could have never discovered it because there was never a notation that said or documentation that said, hey, the rotors are wearing prematurely and you need to replace it. I understand the logic one would have to follow that a bunch of managers would know that a $400,000 part, that we would decide that we're aware of it and we're not going to replace this part. Why would we engage that debate since this incident -- that we became aware of it? We immediately worked to place those orders. CAVANAUGH: Well, when the PUC became aware of it and told you about it. TUCKER: We weren't aware of it before. And if you read Mr. Burk's own comments, he all but states that he was aware of it, but he thought the situation was manageable. He felt as if he didn't have the authority to assign NCTD that level of risk. We don't get to debate the regulations. I can't walk out of here and drive my car somewhere and say I don't like 55miles per hour and I'm going to drive 75 because I believe it's safe. That's the perspective he was taking in this. If we would have anyone, we would have placed the order. CAVANAUGH: Brad, let me ask you, you worked on this investigative report, you talked to the sources. Why do you think it's important for people to know what's going on inside North County Transit, making these decisions about their budgeting process or their repair process? RACINO: Because it's a public agency, people should know about every public agency that their taxpayer dollars go toward, especially when it comes from something transporting so many people every day over a wide area. It's very important. And these budgets are a way for these people to see what is going on internally. They're a transparency measure that people can check to see where my money is going. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Matthew Tucker, first let me give you the opportunity to respond the way you want to to the conversation we have had here. TUCKER: I guess sort of in the role they sit in, I'm always forward-focused. Our top priority from the beginning of us gaining knowledge of this has been the safety of our customers. That's not something that's ever up for debate with us. I think Mr. Racino hit it on spot. The service we provide is critical for folks. And we did a really good job of responding to put some replacement services in place. Now our focus is going forward to restore the sprinter operations in a safe manner. And that's where our focus is today, restoring the sprinter operations and making sure that we strengthen our safety culture, making sure that we build in additional processes within our oversight program to make sure that we reduce any likelihood of any event occurring. CAVANAUGH: One last quick question to you, and that is when is this $400,000-plus repair expected to be completed, and when will the sprinter be back online? TUCKER: Good question. We've already received a couple of sets for test parts, we've already started testing them on the vehicles, and we have passed all of the tests that were associated with it. We're anticipating that the remaining order of parts will be delivered to us at the end of the month, somebody sometime in May. We plan to make an announcement probably in the next few weeks about the restoration of sprinter operations. We're well ahead of the schedule that we originally talked about. CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both. TUCKER: Thank you. RACINO: Thank you.

A bad rotor, similar to the ones found on SPRINTER light rails.
Nicholas McVicker
A bad rotor, similar to the ones found on SPRINTER light rails.

The SPRINTER rail line was taken out of service earlier this year by the North County Transit District. A state inspection found brake rotor wear that did not meet standards of compliance. Repairs to the brake rotors are now underway.

A joint KPBS-i/newsource investigation took a look at the North County Transit District budget. It found that a designation for funding "Vehicle Drive Overhaul" for the SPRINTER, which was in the budget for fiscal year 2012, was not in the budget for 2013.


The former lead engineer for NCTD told the inewsource that many people knew about the break problem.

The investigation also noted that almost the exact amount allocated for Overhaul in the 2012 budget, was designated in 2013 for new buses and new studies. That, among other findings of the investigation, has been found unacceptable by the North County Transit District.

Here's the original story:

SPRINTER funds used for buses — and studies

April 3, 2013

By Brad Racino | inewsource

Money that was budgeted to fix the brakes and pay for other maintenance on North County Transit District’s SPRINTER was instead used to pay for buses and transit studies, inewsource has learned.

The SPRINTER, a passenger train system that runs between Oceanside and Escondido, has been shut down since March because of worn brake rotors.

The North County Transit District (NCTD) budgeted for problems with the SPRINTER’s brakes as far back as 2010, but this year it removed the maintenance money and replaced it with line items for buses and studies, according to budget documents.

One $500,000 study was commissioned to better understand “what public transportation means for North San Diego County.”

The budget documents shed light on who-knew-what-when about the brake problems that forced the SPRINTER out of service in early March. They also raise questions about why maintenance expenses were scratched and studies were inserted among “capital improvement” items. More