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Firm that employed Metrolink engineer had other troubles

Times Staff Writer

Six months ago, four companies were competing for the shuttle service at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. Each of the 10 members on the selection committee agreed that the current operator, ShuttlePort, was ranked last and would not be renewed.

In 2007, ShuttlePort drivers had been involved in two fatal accidents -- one of them a head-on collision between two of its vans -- killing a total of three people. An investigation found that 10 ShuttlePort employees should not have been allowed to drive vans because their driving records violated the company’s contract with Broward County.

The county auditor found that “ShuttlePort did not comply with contract provisions requiring compliance with safety laws and regulations for motor carriers and limiting driver points on their state of Florida motor vehicle records.”

“I would certainly say that’s a safety issue,” Broward County Mayor Lois Wexler said.

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ShuttlePort is a small part of Veolia Environnement, the massive French firm that employed Robert M. Sanchez, the engineer of the Metrolink train that crashed into a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth on Sept. 12, killing 25 people, including himself, and injuring 135.

Through its Veolia Transportation division, the company bills itself as “the leading public transit operator in Europe, Australia and the USA, currently handling more than 2.5 billion passenger journeys a year.” Veolia Transportation is the North American group that employed Sanchez.

The company runs rail systems, bus lines and taxi companies. It not only owns ShuttlePort but also SuperShuttle in Los Angeles and elsewhere. It runs Boston’s commuter rail system, buses in Washington, D.C., Denver, Las Vegas, Connecticut and Texas. It runs light-rail systems in Barcelona and the metro in Stockholm.

It operates buses for the disabled and elderly in Orange County and San Francisco, and has bus contracts with Victor Valley, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and Chico. Veolia runs the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s commuter express service and some of the DASH routes. Since June 2005, it has provided engineers for Metrolink, winning a contract that Amtrak used to hold.

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Veolia Transportation is one of four divisions of Veolia Environnement, which is the world’s largest water company, operating wastewater and tap water systems for municipalities and industrial clients. The firm has $48 billion in total annual revenue and 320,000 employees in 64 countries.

Veolia traces its roots to a 150-year old company that became Vivendi Universal. Vivendi spent $34 billion in 2000 to buy Seagram Co., which owned Universal Studios, the theme parks and music group, transforming the firm into the world’s second-largest media company. As the combined company tottered on the brink of bankruptcy as a result of its debt, it spun off its water division, which changed its name to Veolia and grew into a transportation giant through acquisitions.

But with the transport business have come some complaints, ranging from buses and trains arriving late, to poor maintenance and record keeping, to the problems in Florida.

A Veolia spokeswoman said safety was a top priority. “We rigorously train, enforce, audit, we measure, we communicate,” said Ruth Otte, Veolia’s executive vice president of marketing and communications. “Safety is a foundation of what we do. There are times, when you drive as many millions of miles as we drive in heavy congested traffic, there are occasionally accidents. Human beings drive vehicles, and sometimes there are accidents.”

Drew Jones, vice president for safety and security, touted the safety record of the company’s buses. He said that last year, the company averaged 0.42 accidents per 100,000 miles driven. The latest national figures, he said, were 1.55 accidents per 100,000 miles driven in 2005.

Metrolink’s board chairman, however, wondered in a recent interview how Veolia had hired Sanchez, the engineer in the Chatsworth crash. Ron Roberts, a nine-year board member and a Temecula city councilman, said he was surprised to read that Sanchez had been convicted of shoplifting in 2002.

“I’m kind of surprised that a company we contract with let him do what he does,” Roberts said.

Erica Swerdlow, a spokeswoman for Veolia in North America, said the National Transportation Safety Board, which was investigating the Metrolink accident, had told the company not to comment about Sanchez. “It’s amazing to me a board chairman would make such a comment when he’s not supposed to comment about Rob Sanchez or anything to do with Metrolink,” she said.

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Company policy, she said, is that someone who has committed a felony in the previous seven years is not eligible to be hired. Someone who has committed a misdemeanor during that same period can be hired, depending on how the crime relates to the job, she said.

Veolia employees contacted by The Times declined to speak, citing a confidentiality agreement promising not to talk to the media. Swerdlow said the agreement is standard in the transportation industry. Violating the clause can lead to a range of disciplinary action, she said. The company refused to provide The Times with a copy of the policy.

After the Chatsworth crash, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered a “top to bottom review” of all city contracts with Veolia as a precautionary move, a spokesman said.

There have been problems elsewhere.

In Orange County, Veolia, which provides the county’s paratransport service, was fined at least $1.3 million for failing to pick up disabled people at scheduled times. Veolia officials blamed the county’s size and congestion. They told Orange County Transportation Authority officials that Veolia hadn’t hired enough drivers and had problems training them and that new software had caused scheduling difficulties.

In March 2007, the OCTA board gave the company 60 days to improve or lose the contract.

Last month, OCTA approved a three-year extension with Veolia.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., outside Atlanta, Veolia was sharply criticized in an August 2007 audit of the bus system for its safety, training and maintenance procedures.

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Phil Boyd, the county transit division director, said that according to the audit, records were so badly kept that it was hard to tell what procedures had been followed. He said fire extinguishers had not been inspected and there were problems with the mechanics’ training records.

“There’s some lack of maintenance,” Boyd said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was intentional.” When you don’t have good records, you may not recognize things that need to be done, he said.

He said that since Veolia was put on a weekly reporting program, its work has improved.

In Australia earlier this year, a Veolia-owned company was fined a record $8.2 million for late and canceled trains. Otte said the tardiness was the result of increased ridership.

Veolia also has encountered problems at Boston’s commuter rail system, the fifth-largest in the country. Veolia owns 60% of the consortium that operates the trains for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The NTSB found that a 2007 collision between a train and a maintenance truck, in which two workers were killed, probably was caused by a failure to follow safety procedures. The NTSB found that a dispatcher had failed to provide proper signaling and that the workers did not use equipment that would have given them additional protection.

In addition, according to reports in the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad was taken to task for late trains and malfunctioning air conditioning.

In Southern California, Veolia faces a class-action suit charging the company did not always give its bus drivers their required lunch or rest breaks. A federal judge Thursday consolidated two lawsuits into one case. Plaintiffs in both cases were bus drivers in the Antelope Valley.

“Sometimes she had to eat with food on her lap,” said Brian Kabateck, attorney for Carmen Hita. “To us it’s about the safety of the driver and the passenger.” The other driver, Sonya Williams, says in her suit that the air conditioning in her bus broke down and her supervisor refused to relieve her.

Firefighters treated her for heat exhaustion, said Matthew Theriault, one of her attorneys.

James N. Foster, an attorney for Veolia, said that because of changes in regulations, many private transport companies have been sued on similar grounds. He said two cases against Veolia have been settled with confidentiality clauses.

“Veolia strives to be a leader in compliance,” he said.

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rich Connell, Steve Hymon, Ted Rohrlich, Phil Willon and David Zahniser contributed to this report.


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