Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) said Friday it is very likely that a top federal railroad safety official committed perjury before her subcommittee when he testified recently about safety inspections of Southern Pacific railroads.
Boxer said Edward R. English, chief of safety for the Federal Railroad Administration, had told her subcommittee in late July that he was unaware of a decision to halt a safety inspection of the railroad's equipment.
But on Thursday, H.T. (Tom) Patton, regional director of the railroad administration, testified that he had informed English, his boss, of the decision to cancel a June 23 inspection that was already in progress in Colton.
Boxer told The Times that the discrepancy points to a "massive cover-up" by federal regulators. Paton's disclosures came at a state legislative hearing in Los Angeles looking into safety issues raised by two Southern Pacific derailments last month--one that dumped toxic chemicals into the Sacramento River and another that spilled dangerous toxins at Seacliff in Ventura County.
English had testified July 31 before Boxer's government activities and transportation subcommittee--which is also investigating the wrecks--that he had no recollection of an inspection being called off while it was in progress.
Boxer, acting on information from a "whistle-blower," asked English: "Was there ever any occasion when FRA was inspecting Southern Pacific and the inspection was called off in the middle of the work?"
According to a transcript of the hearing, English replied: "I cannot answer that. I heard that mentioned earlier, and I do not know of any occasion where we were conducting a (federal and state) task force activity on the SP and the task force activity was canceled. I do not--I have no knowledge of that at all."
He added later, when pressed by Boxer, "Today was the first I heard about it. And we will certainly look into that issue."
But Paton testified Thursday before the Assembly Transportation Committee chaired by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), that he had conferred with English before calling off an inspection of railroad cars at Southern Pacific's West Colton yard. Paton said he made the decision after Southern Pacific's chief mechanical officer called him at home to complain that the railroad lost more than $1 million when its rail traffic was interrupted during a three-day inspection in Tucson. Southern Pacific officials acknowledge making the complaint but deny that they were attempting to prevent an inspection.
Paton said of his conversation with English: "I told him it was my feeling I should postpone the inspection at West Colton, that I felt I had pushed Southern Pacific about as far as I could."
Under questioning by Katz, Paton said the decision was his alone and that he telephoned English simply to inform him of it.
Paton said the inspectors had scarcely begun the Colton inspection of freight cars when he made the decision to divert the team to a Santa Fe railroad yard in Barstow.
"Southern Pacific isn't the only railroad I'm responsible for," Paton said. "I've got to keep an eye on others, too."
He said there was no relationship between the canceled inspection and the derailments.
English, in a phone interview from Washington, said Paton told him of his testimony Thursday evening. English did not dispute Paton but said he still could not recall being informed of the canceled inspection.
"I do not recall him communicating with me," said English. "That is not to say he didn't."
He maintained that it is not unusual to cancel such an inspection and that Southern Pacific was already under sufficiently close scrutiny by government inspectors.
"I don't get too excited about an inspection being canceled," he said. "We look at SP almost every day just the way we look at every other large railroad."
"That's the lamest excuse I've ever heard," Boxer responded in a phone interview. "From what I can see there is a cover-up going on at the highest levels of the Federal Railroad Administration."
State and federal hearings have revealed that prior to last month's derailments in California, safety inspectors routinely found that 80% to 90% of Southern Pacific's locomotives were defective.
Hurst reported from Sacramento and Warren reported from Riverside.