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Firm that employed Metrolink engineer had other troubles

September 29, 2008|Jeff Gottlieb | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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