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Metrolink train crews threaten boycott over personality test requirement [Updated]

March 31, 2010 |  5:16 pm

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Engineers and conductors on Southern California’s commuter rail service are threatening a boycott of new personality profiling tests required as a result of the 2008 Chatsworth disaster.

The dispute sets up a potentially major labor-management clash just as the five-county Metrolink system is shifting to a new contractor to provide crews for trains that have nearly 1 million boardings a month.

[Updated at 8:01 p.m. An earlier version of this post said there were nearly 1 million boardings a year.]

The screening tests, frequently used by corporate managers to gauge the suitability of job applicants, are already required by Amtrak, the incoming operating contractor, when it hires engineers and conductors.

But two powerful railroad unions are strongly objecting to a Metrolink-Amtrak agreement finalized last week. It requires experienced crew members on the regional rail service to take and pass the tests to continue working on the system. Some have worked on Metrolink trains for years.

“We are not going to be taking these tests,” said Tim Smith, California legislative chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “That’s it. We’ll see where it ends.”

“We’re all going to stand together,” said Ray Garcia of the United Transportation Union, which represents the conductors.

Union leaders say that, unless the dispute is resolved, Amtrak may not be able to field qualified train crews when it takes over operations this summer. Amtrak is set to assume operation of the 500-mile Metrolink system July 1. Connex Railroad, the current operator, opted not to pursue a contract extension when it’s relationship with Metrolink soured after the Chatsworth crash, which killed 25 and injured 135.

Metrolink board members say safety must come first, but they are likely to revisit the testing issue to ensure it is fair to the approximately 130 engineers and conductors now working on their trains.

The push for psychological screening was prompted by findings that a Metrolink engineer who repeatedly violated safety rules caused the Chatsworth catastrophe. Engineer Robert M. Sanchez, who died in the crash, had sent and received hundreds of text messages while operating trains, including seconds before he ran a red light and hit a freight train head-on, federal investigators concluded. In addition, evidence showed Sanchez sneaked young rail fans onto locomotives and apparently let at least one sit at the train controls. Such conduct was wildly irresponsible, Metrolink officials say, and occurred even though the veteran engineer had received good evaluations.

“You don’t want someone out there who’s having whatever psychological issues they are having that could jeopardize passengers,” said Metrolink board Chairman Keith Millhouse. But he added, “We are going to have to look at this and see if some kind of proper balance can be struck.”

Union leaders say the tests are not valid or relevant measures of a trained and experienced employee’s ability to safely operate trains. They say they do not object to testing of potential hires who are not union members. But forcing existing train crews to pass the tests could arbitrarily cost good workers their jobs, they say.

“I think it’s strictly a witch hunt,” said Smith of the engineers union.

Also, longtime Amtrak employees who’ve never taken the personality tests would be allowed to transfer to Metrolink under the new contract, said conductors’ representative Garcia. “This is something that’s never, ever been required” of seasoned workers moving between operating contractors on railroad’s like Metrolink, he said.

At issue are tests Amtrak has used for several years to screen job applicants. A “personality inventory” for engineers is designed to reveal an applicant’s “work tendencies, habits and personality traits,” according to an Amtrak statement. It specifically seeks out what are labeled “focused introverts” who are good at repetitive tasks and don’t allow themselves to become distracted by such things as cellphones while operating a train, according to descriptions provided by the rail company. The assessment was developed with union assistance and consultants and has been used since 2002, according to Amtrak.

Conductor candidates take two such tests: One is designed to gauge an applicant’s ability to interact with customers and deal with conflicts and emergencies. The other seeks to measure a person’s ethics and attitudes toward theft, drug use and other workplace concerns.

Amtrak declined to provide failure rates for the tests, but Garcia said about 20% of conductor applicants fail the ethics and attitude test.

The written tests are part of an ongoing effort to overhaul Metrolink’s safety culture, agency officials say. Another initiative, last year’s installation of video surveillance cameras in train control cabs, has already sparked a legal battle with the engineers union.

Like the cameras, personality testing of train crews — and particularly locomotive engineers — is prudent because employees are responsible for hundreds of lives, said agency board member Richard Katz. “This is one more tool to help evaluate how an engineer might operate under stress.”

USC professor Robert Gore, a personality testing expert, said such screening can be valuable but might not flag an employee like engineer Sanchez. “These tests are far from perfect,” he said, adding that they should be used with great caution in screening existing workers who have not demonstrated problems.

Katz said he thinks the test results should be part of assessing existing workers but not necessarily a disqualifying factor. But he acknowledged that under the current contract language, Metrolink crew members “run the risk of not being employed” if they don’t agree to take the tests.

-- Rich Connell

Photo: Firefighters and others continue rescue efforts after a Metrolink commuter train collides with a freight train in Chatsworth on Sept. 12, 2008. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times
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