Monday, June 15, 2015

Control the speed of the train. Period

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Control the speed of the train. Period

The National Transportation Safety Board, in a second update of the May 12 fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, announced that it found no indication that the locomotive engineer of train no. 188 was using his cell phone to talk or text while operating the train. In response to questions posed separately, NTSB confirmed that indeed the cell phone records support the engineer’s statement that he utilized the cell phone to call 911 after the accident.

That’s good news, even if it doesn’t positively, absolutely eliminate use of a cell phone or other personal electronic device as a contributing factor to this derailment. NTSB has not yet determined if the locomotive engineer was utilizing an application, or perhaps playing a game.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that a second cell phone was in use, a “burner” as it is called, bought at a store, “loaded” through the purchase of time cards so no name even has to be associated with an account.

“Here, take my cell phone, and here’s my PIN,” I say as I hand you, the investigators, my cell phone, well after I have destroyed the burner and tossed the pieces out the window.

I doubt that the locomotive engineer used a burner. And I don’t care. I don’t need to know. Really. I don’t need to know. We don’t need to know. I don’t need the archive from an inward facing video recorder. We don’t need to install inward facing video recorders. I know the cause of this derailment. Everybody knows the cause, except those with a vested interest in pretending the cause is yet to be discovered.

This is an overspeed derailment. The cause is the failure of the locomotive engineer to properly control the speed of his train in accordance with operating rules and timetable special instructions. That really is the end of the story when it comes to cause. It’s the beginning of the story, unfortunately an old story, when it comes to prevention.

What is a locomotive engineer? An employee of the railroad who is responsible for operating the equipment providing tractive effort in accordance with the rules and requirements for safe train operations, the employee responsible for controlling the speed of the train.

That’s what a locomotive engineer does; that’s why the job classification, and the requirements for training, certification and oversight exist.

Control the speed of the train.

Rock hits the windshield?

Report the incident, and control the speed of the train.

Permanent speed restriction sign missing?

You qualified on the physical characteristics. Control the speed of the train.

Your partner home alone with the kids, who have the flu?

Control the speed of the train.

Cab signals/speed control not operative on your locomotive?

Control the speed of the train.

Wayside signals absent or dark from/at their proper location?

Control the speed of the train.

Gunfight among passengers back in the coaches?

Control the speed of the train.

Traction motor runaway leading to uncontrolled acceleration?

Drop the pantograph. Control the speed of the train.

That’s the job. Period. Raining, snowing, night, day, in between. That’s it.

If the railroad didn’t need a human being to control the speed of the train, there would be no locomotive engineers.

“But ... what ... if …?”

There are none. No buts, no whats, no ifs. That’s how important, relentless, unforgiving the job is. That’s what we sign up for when we sign up for the railroad.

We know that 188 accelerated from 70 mph to 106 mph and that this acceleration took 50 seconds.

Locomotives are equipped with alertness devices (“alerters”). Most are configured in a “countdown mode” from approximately 25 seconds to zero, during which time the locomotive engineer must take an action that will satisfy a condition of “responsiveness” to the warning. As the system “counts down,” the warnings get louder, brighter, more insistent. And if the timer goes to zero without the locomotive engineer taking action? An automatic, irreversible brake application.

Some alertness systems are configured so that the greater the speed of the train, the more frequent the requirement placed on the locomotive engineer to demonstrate responsiveness.

Provided the system on the locomotive was functioning, the locomotive engineer would have had to satisfy the alertness requirement at least once, possibly more than once during the acceleration of the train to its speed at derailment.

One thing we don’t sign up for on the railroad is second chances. Nobody is assured a second chance, given that the results of a single failure can be catastrophic. That—single-failure catastrophe—is precisely what defines “justice culture” on railroads. You may not get a second chance. If you do, it’s a matter of luck, of random occurrence—not justice, not reason, not equity, not fairness, not anything. Justice culture on a railroad really is “one and done,” because the justice to be served is the justice that the passengers and the other employees are entitled to receive.

David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”

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