It’s Time to End Crew Fatigue and Implement PTC


As the recent Metro North passenger train wreck in New York illustrates, fatigue kills. From preliminary reports, it appears that the engineer had nodded off. This of course would not be the first time that a train crew member fell asleep. As we know, it happens all the time. In this case however, the result was catastrophic.


Sleepiness, spacing out, nodding off, zoning out, drowsiness -- it is a way of life for railroad train crews. Considering the lack of scheduling in the freight industry; the 24/7 nature of the job; the lack of time off work (and harsh availability policies that keep us "in line" if and when we choose to mark off); the inability to predict the time when one will be called to work or when one will be relieved of duty -- it is a wonder that there are not more tragic wrecks as a result of fatigue.


When there is a spectacular wreck like the Metro North derailment, the immediate temptation is to blame the train's crew. But those of us in train & engine service know that there is always more to it than that. In the days and weeks to come, railroad train crews across the nation will be bombarded with "advisories", "alerts" and bulletins that beseech us to stay alert, to remain focused, and maintain our “situational awareness”. Yet ironically, not a single railroad will do anything to improve train lineup predictability, grant the needed time off work to those who request it, schedule their railroad's trains, or beef up the extra boards and/or pools to ensure adequate staffing which would result in adequate rest for train crews.


The fact remains, train crews are human beings. And as such, we make mistakes, cut corners, nod off, get distracted, zone out, forget things, get irritable, become sleepy, and fail to properly perform the task at hand, like every other human being. Even under ideal conditions we remain human and imperfect, prone to error. Therefore, we need to stop pointing fingers and laying blame each and every time there is a train wreck. Rather, we must begin to organize the workplace around human beings, taking into account all of our fallibilities.


And this means granting adequate rest between tours-of-duty, granting reasonable time off away from the workplace, and ending the practice of “subject to call” 24/7. In addition, it means implementing the technology that has been available for many years now so that if and when a train crew does zone out, nod off, or make a mistake, it does not become a fatal mistake. But the rail carriers have historically resisted any attempt to reduce crew fatigue, and are in fact lobbying vigorously to stave off the mandated implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC). Meanwhile, trains continue to go in the ditch and lives continue to be lost. And the rail carriers simply blame the workers. And if that isn’t bad enough, the rail carriers are pushing for single employee train operations to become the universal standard for the industry. While the Metro North engineer did had additional crew members behind him, he was alone in the cab. Would this wreck have even happened had he had a partner in the cab to assist in preventing this tragedy?


If we are serious about safety, if we are serious about eliminating tragic train wrecks, then it’s high time for a change in the direction the industry is headed. No more crew fatigue! PTC now! No single employee train crews!