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

Push-Pull Train in Crash Lacked “Alerter”

The common operation of “push-pull” trains by railroads again came under investigation as it was revealed that the control cab at the front of the Metro-North train that crashed on December 1 did not have an “alerter” system in use.  Such a system monitors the engineer’s actions and, if he or she does nothing for a set period of time, sounds an alarm that the engineer must acknowledge to avoid the brakes going on.  However, although the locomotive for the train may have such a system, it is not necessarily available if the locomotive is pushing the train and the engineer is operating from a cab at the front of a passenger car, according to reporting in The New York Times (Matt Flegenheimer, Ford Fessenden, and Henry Fountain; Dec. 4–5).

Metro-North said that equipment to be purchased in the future will have alerters included.  Since “highway hypnosis” has been discussed as a possible cause of the crash, the absence of an alerter may have been a contributing factor.  The use of push-pull trains has become increasingly popular in recent years, as the trains do not have to be turned at the end of each run.  New Jersey Transit is an especially heavy user of push-pull trains; NJT has opted not to replace aging “multiple-unit” electric trains, which are not push-pull trains.  Instead in many cases NJT chooses to run push-pull trains with their own separate locomotives.  It is not known at this point whether NJT push-pull trains are equipped with alerters.

Read the complete article at:


“Highway Hypnosis” May Have Caused Rail Wreck

According to the lawyer for the engineer who was running the Metro-North train that crashed on December 1, killing 4 passengers and injuring many others, the engineer experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he was zooming down the rails in a 70-mph speed zone; the train apparently failed to reduce speed in time as it entered a sharp curve, with speed limit only 30 mph.  The event recorder on the train recorded speeds as high as 82 mph just before the wreck.  Was “highway hypnosis” a factor?  Perhaps, according to reporting by Jennifer Peitz and Sam Hananel (Star-Ledger, December 5, by the Associated Press).

There is little scientific study on the phenomenon; some experts equate the condition with an “autopilot state” in which performing a task, usually routine, for long periods, occurs without conscious attention to it.  The individual enters a dazed state, which might actually be sleep, particularly if he or she has an undiagnosed sleep disorder.  Meanwhile, in this case, the 46-year-old engineer has been suspended from his job without pay, the usual response of a railroad when an employee has apparently violated the rules and caused a serious accident.

However, is the engineer alone in responsibility for the disaster?  Consider an Interstate highway that runs straight as an arrow for miles and then suddenly has a 30-mph curve.  Highway authorities would be remiss if they didn’t post clear warning signs, probably with flashing lights to warn inattentive motorists to slow down.   In contrast, railroads seldom have such warning devices, holding to a long tradition that engineers and conductors need to be “qualified on the territory”, which means they must memorize all the regulations that apply to specific track areas, notably including speed limits; the engineer, alone in his or her cab on most trains, is solely responsible for operating within the limits which are listed in the railroad’s rule books and timetables.—but is this enough to ensure safety, particularly where there are no computerized systems to double-check whether the train is observing speed limits?  These questions invite continuing investigation of how to ensure the safety of rail passengers.