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Former Boston Agency Safety Chief Alleges He Was Fired for Reporting Light Rail Concerns to Federal Officials

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A whistleblower complaint filed by Ronald W. Nickle, former chief safety officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), alleges he was terminated from his position one day after meeting with federal officials about his concerns regarding the multibillion-dollar light rail extension project.

According to Nickle, efforts were made to undermine his authority to deal with his safety concerns and there were serious violations of federal safety regulations and laws.

The allegations come after several heavily publicized problems with light rail operation and derailments. Nickle’s concerns were specifically linked to the Green Line Extension project. In addition to safety issues, Nickle also believed that there should have been more transparency concerning the project. The project is supposed to be completed by 2021 but did not break ground until mid-2018.

Nickle’s complaint was especially critical and alleges staff cuts at the agency have created safety issues, while managers were rewarded with pay increases.

Nickle’s attorney claims he was fired because of the scrutiny he invited into the safety record and culture of the agency.

MBTA Denies Claims

MBTA claims that safety remains the agency’s top priority. It disputes Nickle’s allegations and denies he was fired for reporting his concerns. Instead, the agency claims it had “legitimate reasons” for firing Nickle that included complaints from subordinates claiming that he had a demeaning management style and he was unwilling to listen to the opinions of others. Despite denying the allegations, the MBTA is investigating the claims made by Nickle.

The agency also pointed out it has recently made several changes to improve its performance, including hiring a new chief safety officer.

Safety Inspections Turned Up Construction Concerns and Other Issues

Nickle met with the Federal Transportation Authority, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in mid-March. He was reporting on the results of his safety audits and inspections.

According to his report, an employee was injured earlier in 2019 while off-loading equipment due to a “lack of job hazard analysis and safety briefing.” Nickle further claims that the week he was fired, two additional accidents took place including a wall collapse during demolition. He had also been investigating three additional accidents, including worker electrocution, a train that lost a wheel mid-commute, and a train car derailment during the New England Patriot’s Super Bowl parade.

In March, Nickle also found what he described as “a complete breakdown in on-track safety protocols, non-compliance with federal regulations and non-conformance with the Railroad Workplace Safety Program” while investigating two near-miss incidents related to the construction project. He believes the issues were caused by unsafe construction activities that involved heavy equipment.

The expansion project is headed up by GLX Constructors, which is a joint venture that includes Fluor Enterprises Inc., the Middlesex Corp., Herzog Contracting Corp., and Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc.

In 2018, Algonquin Gas alleged GLX performed construction activities near high-pressure lines without authorization or a spotter.

In a separate incident, Nickle alleges his inspection found that a section of curved track encroached upon the minimum clearance limits of bridge abutments and needed to be corrected. He called the issue “potentially catastrophic.”

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