Emails show Metro Transit downplayed safety issue described as ‘horizontal guillotine’

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Metro Transit downplayed a dangerous hazard even after its own safety official warned that loose bus panels could decapitate someone if they spontaneously popped open in the middle of a route, according to internal emails obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

The safety official was explaining the extent of the dangers created by one of those panels — which he described as a “horizontal guillotine along the curb line.”

It has been an ongoing safety issue on transit buses for several years.

5 INVESTIGATES first reported back in January that Metro Transit was accused of not doing enough to fix those dangerous panels and that drivers were being trained to use duct tape to temporarily secure them if they flew open while on the road.

Internal emails now reveal that behind the scenes transit officials downplayed the extent of the problem with one describing it as “minuscule to say the very least.”

But current and former bus drivers who spoke to 5 INVESTIGATES say it’s a much bigger problem than the largest public transportation agency in the state is acknowledging.

“I know a lot of drivers that have had it happen,” one driver said in an interview before clocking in for his shift. “It’s not a minuscule issue. Absolutely not.”

5 INVESTIGATES agreed not to identify the driver because he fears for his job.

“I’ve had it happen three different times to myself,” he said about having the side panel fly open while on the road.

The true extent of the problem is unknown because Metro Transit only tracks accidents caused by loose panels. The agency confirmed the panels have caused property damage eight times since 2016, including an incident two years ago in which a panel sliced through a bus shelter.

Metro Transit confirmed it has reached out to Gillig, the manufacturer, but the company was not aware of the issue.

According to an agency spokesperson, no one has been injured from loose panels, but a longtime transportation expert in Minnesota says the agency is still exposing itself to significant liability.

“They know this is a problem,” said El Tinklenberg, a former Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner and long-term transportation official.

“I learned long ago that hope is not a strategy,” he said. “Hoping it doesn’t injure someone in the process is not a responsible strategy.”

The agency declined to do another interview with 5 INVESTIGATES. A spokesperson previously defended the use of duct tape and emphasized the safety issue has been addressed with added inspections and training for drivers.

Yet, internal emails show transit officials were also aware of a previous gap in training and “inconsistent” policies that made the issue even more dangerous.

In an email to 5 INVESTIGATES, an agency spokesperson confirmed that the safety concern has been addressed. They have “restored a reminder” as part of pre-trip inspections.

Transit officials were also wary of initial questions about the ongoing problem, with one writing “sounds like trouble to me.”

"I mean, we’re not trying to land a booster rocket here so we could reuse it," Tinklenberg said. "This is pretty simple. And I would have thought it would have been taken care of quickly."

He was particularly troubled by the agency’s continuing reliance on duct tape as a quick fix.

“That may be a private-sector solution where somebody is trying to avoid having to spend any money,” Tinklenberg said. “But that is not a public sector solution.”