Less than three months after a Nashville Scene investigation detailed numerous problems in the state’s oversight of Tennessee railroads, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) announced in July that the state official most closely associated with TDOT’s railroad policies had been reassigned.
Mal Baird, formerly assistant to the executive director of operations at TDOT, was appointed to oversee a newly created Strategic Planning Office at TDOT, according to a statement released by the department. The Scene’s Apr. 16 cover story named Baird as one of several rail officials responsible for unsafe conditions on Tennessee short-line railroads. The safety problems were exacerbated after Baird signed an August 1996 agreement that effectively banned state inspectors from examining short-line railroads.
In a related development, the Scene has learned that TDOT has apparently reversed that controversial 1996 decision, and sent state railway safety officials back out to inspect Tennessee’s small railroads. Unfortunately, what some inspectors are finding isn’t pretty.
In a September inspection, J.D. Stephens, a railroad inspector, found 48 safety defects on two railroad tracks, the Sequatchie Valley Railroad in South Pittsburg and the Walking Horse & Eastern Railroad in Shelbyville. Among the problems, which safety officials said could lead to accidents, were rails that were too far apart, and defective wooden cross ties.
Unfortunately, no inspector had looked at the Sequatchie track since October 1997, according to records obtained from the Federal Railroad Adminstration (FRA). Worse, FRA records indicate that there were no inspections of the Walking Horse track since October 1996.
Baird formerly had effective control of some 100 TDOT employees and of several state programs with multi-million dollar budgets. A TDOT spokesperson said the new Strategic Planning Office has no budget at present, but will “once the office is in place.” Currently, Baird is the only TDOT executive in the planning office and has no professional staff under him.
TDOT commissioner Bruce Saltsman, in a written statement, described Baird as one of TDOT’s “greatest thinkers,” and said that his appointment is a “very important and positive step” for the department.
TDOT insiders, however, scoffed at this analysis. “Everybody at TDOT knows it’s a demotion just to get [Baird] out of the way,” explained one TDOT rail official.
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