Fatigue Widespread in Rail Industry

Fatigue or engineer inattention appears to be a contributing factor in the Metro-North commuter train crash on December 1 that killed 4 passengers and injured 67, some seriously.  The engineer’s lawyer has said that the engineer “zoned out” before the crash, becoming fully awake only when it was too late to slow for the 30-mph curve where the train left the tracks—this in spite of the engineer’s feeling fully rested after 7 hours of sleep when he came on duty at 5 a.m.  The accident toll could have been much worse had the wreck occurred in a packed rush hour train, rather than on a sleepy Sunday morning.

Media attention is now turning to train crew fatigue as a possibly widespread problem.  A report in the online news site Huffington Post (December 6) spotlights the issue.  An Amtrak engineer working out of Charlotte, N.C., says that he can be called to work an extra shift at the last minute, sometimes when he would normally be asleep; he says he sings to himself or claps his hands to keep awake at the throttle. “I’ve caught myself nodding off,” he admits.  Other engineers said they too were aware of the dangers of sleepiness at the controls, and admitted they had caught themselves on the verge of a nap, or even sleeping.  John Paul Wight, a CSX freight engineer, said that he has nodded off “just as thousands do every hour. . . . It’s part of our culture.”  Wight says the stress from occupational fatigue has led to anxiety and even panic attacks.  A union official said that 56% of rail workers say that it’s hard to keep up with rules and instructions while working, due to fatigue: “The biggest issue with railroaders is fatigue, not pay,” he said.

In most railroad operations, compliance with speed restrictions requires employees to memorize them, unlike on highways where clear signs tell motorists when they are required to slow down.  National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman echoed the concerns, telling NBC News that fatigue is “an insidious problem, particularly in the rail industry.”  It happens to motor vehicle drivers, too, according to retired Cornell University psychology professor and sleep experts, who says that most drivers have nodded off at the wheel at some point; these episodes are called “microsleeps,” and can last up to 2 minutes, without a driver being aware of it.  Tasks can even be completed while asleep.  A former Conrail and later Norfolk Southern freight engineer told the Lackawanna Coalition that he often nodded off on his monotonous runs between North Jersey and Binghamton, N.Y.; once, he said, he began sounding his horn for a highway crossing, then recalled nothing until he was miles beyond it, in dark woods.  “That will wake you up,” he said, noting that he was not alone in his cab, but “the conductor goes right to sleep as soon as we leave the terminal.”

Read the full story at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/06/train-derailment-sleep_n_4393878.html