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December 28, 2013

Why Trinity Railway Express’ mechanical officer got the ax

Trinity Railway Express’ former mechanical officer was laid off in September after six years on the job, but the reason for his departure is in dispute.

The Trinity Railway Express’ former chief mechanical officer contends he lost his job after raising concerns about the cost and the safety of the rail cars being considered for the proposed TEX Rail commuter line.

Sal DeAngelo, who worked at the TRE about six years, was notified in September that his position had been eliminated because the agency was consolidating positions to save money.

But DeAngelo believes he lost his $110,000-a year-job after criticizing plans to use sleek modern rail cars known as diesel multiple units on the proposed TEX Rail commuter line from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which area officials hope to open up by 2017.

The rail cars are known to have problems with “shunting,” or maintaining an electrical connection between the steel wheels and railroad tracks. That connection is needed to trigger gates and flashing lights at crossings and to help dispatchers keep track of trains on computer screens.

He also spoke critically of the negotiations between the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and Dallas Area Rapid Transit, saying the T was caving in to DART’s demands on the use of the diesel multiple unit-type car and other issues. DART owns about half the tracks the proposed 37-mile rail line would use.

“DART is calling all the shots,” DeAngelo said.

Safety and cost issues

The rail car is considered an ideal design for North Texas because it gives riders a comfortable streetcarlike experience while offering panoramic windows, ample standing room and low floors that make it easier for seniors and people with disabilities to climb on board.

They are also built to run on freight railroad tracks and to withstand crashes with much heavier trains. Most of the commuter lines planned in the Metroplex during the next two to three decades are expected to run on tracks shared with freight trains.

But the diesel multiple units also cost more than older passenger cars and locomotives, and the T likely will have to spend $90 million buying the vehicles for its TEX Rail line, about $25 million more than if the T bought the older-model bilevel cars currently used on TRE.

They also have trouble with “shunting,” which was well-known internally at the T but wasn’t broadly discussed in public until October, when DeAngelo — just weeks after losing his job — appeared at a T board meeting and asked to speak during a public comment period.

“The concern about the vehicle being favored by the T and DART as the regional vehicle has been met with indifference and inaction,” DeAngelo said.

DeAngelo spoke to the board for only three minutes, but later he met privately with the Star-Telegram with documents to back up his belief that he and former TRE Chief Operating Officer Bill Farquhar were pushed out because they wouldn’t keep quiet about decisions being made by the T and DART officials.

Besides raising questions about the rail car’s safety issues, DeAngelo said he spoke to his superiors about the T conceding too much to DART — including signing over its real estate interests — because the T is under intense pressure to get the project up and running.

DeAngelo alleges that his own termination, and Farquhar’s voluntary resignation, were at least partly related to those attempts to bring those concerns to the forefront.

DeAngelo said he was offered severance pay by the T and was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. He said he declined the package because of the confidentiality requirement.

Farquhar, reached by phone at his California home, declined to be interviewed, saying he signed the confidentiality agreement upon his Jan. 7 resignation. He received 12 weeks of pay amounting to $31,093 and benefits such as insurance and retirement funds totaling $6,441.

But Farquhar’s resignation letter was succinct and included no well-wishes. It simply read: “To whom it may concern: I am resigning my position as the chief operating officer of the Trinity Railway Express effective this date. Sincerely, W.T. ‘Bill’ Farquhar.”

Redundant positions

T officials said DeAngelo was simply laid off because his job was redundant.

Rob Harmon, the T’s chief financial officer and vice president of commuter rail, said the person who eventually replaces Farquhar will be asked to do both Farquhar’s and DeAngelo’s jobs. It will be an oversight position, with private-sector Herzog Transit Service employees performing the actual work, he said.

“I thought these positions were somewhat redundant. I thought one person could easily oversee the work of both the operations and maintenance. Some of it is very similar and Herzog has very qualified people in these positions,” Harmon said.

T officials said Farquhar’s departure was voluntary, but they declined to comment further.

But emails provided to the Star-Telegram suggest that there may be more to DeAngelo and Farquhar losing their jobs than budgetary efficiency.

While Farquhar and DeAngelo were still at the T, the friction between them and the executive staff came to a climax in December 2012, after the T board voted to pursue diesel multiple units for the TEX Rail line.

During a break at a TRE committee meeting — and also a full T board meeting days later — T board member Jeff Ritter of Richland Hills recalled that he had struck up a conversation and asked Farquhar why he opposed the Stadler-type rail cars.

Farquhar answered Ritter’s questions about the Stadler car and other options for TEX Rail, Ritter remembered, and that was seemingly the end of the conversation.

But their conversation didn’t sit well with Nancy Amos, the T’s senior vice president. She wrote a Dec. 20 memo to Farquhar scolding him for continuing to argue against the Stadler-type car and for talking with Ritter outside the presence of his superiors.

The subject of the memo was titled “Things are not improving with regard to your working relationship with Norma.” The “Norma” cited in the memo is Norma De La Garza-Navarro, DART vice president of commuter rail/railroad management. While Farquhar and DeAngelo were T employees, they reported to De La Garza-Navarro.

Amos told Farquhar that his actions were “messing with the DART negotiations — just as I told you could not happen. I realize there are two sides to every story. Unfortunately, the boss’ [De La Garza-Navarro’s] side has to win out if you unable to convince her otherwise.”

His conversations with Ritter on two different occasions “with no warning or heads-up to me, are extremely troubling. … You are not on board with the new vehicle decision. I will ponder what the T’s options are in this regard. I am at a loss to resolve [it] by myself.”

Amos declined to comment on the Dec. 20 memo to Farquhar except to say: “That was a private communication to Bill. I don’t feel that I can provide any further clarification to you because it is a personnel matter.”

But she said that the executive staff has no problem with middle managers talking to board members.

In response to a request by the Star-Telegram for an interview, De La Garza-Navarro released a statement by email declining to elaborate on DeAngelo’s departure.

Ritter said he initiated the conversation with Farquhar because he and two other former board members were becoming concerned with the cost of the newer-style rail cars.

Ritter said he hopes his search for information didn’t lead to Farquhar’s departure.

“I would simply say that if Mr. Farquhar was indeed terminated for answering a question I asked him,” Ritter said, “I would feel extremely disappointed and hurt.”

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