The folly of hearings and fines

Written by William C. Keppen, Jr.
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House Railroad Subcommittee Chair Jeff Denham (R-Calif.)

Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono, writing about the most recent congressional hearing on Positive Train Control, as well as attempts by some Members of Congress to arm-twist the Federal Railroad Administration on granting exemptions, opined, “I’ve said it before many times, but it’s always worth repeating: Politics should not be involved in safety. Why engage in politics at this stage of the game? What is the agenda here? Who or what is behind this?”

Indeed, what purpose is served? Will these sideshows bring about more expeditious PTC implementation? Will they offer or invoke alternative safety measures as railroads struggle with the monetary and technological challenges associated with PTC implementation? Of course not. So, what comes next? Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials say, “Take out the sticks.” Hundreds of millions of dollars have been funneled into PTC development and implementation. It seems a folly, to me at least, to think that a $28,000 fine will in any way cause a railroad to deploy fully functional PTC any quicker that it would otherwise.

Why not do something constructive, for a change? We all know that PTC was conceived and designed to guard against human performance lapses by train operating crews that result in derailments and collisions. We also know, because such events have been well documented by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), that the nature of the performances lapses PTC was designed to protect against are actually quite limited. They include: 1) distraction; 2) fatigue; 3) medical fitness-for-duty; and 4) sleep disorders, particularly obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) suffered by the engineer contributed to NJ Transit’s 2016 end-of-platform crash in Hoboken Terminal. One bystander was killed when the platform canopy collapsed onto the train.

There is very little more Congress or the FRA can do about distraction, in general, so let’s set that one aside. The other three, however, offer a wealth of opportunities. We need look no further than the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA), the same legislation that called for PTC, to find requirements for railroads to 1) address and mitigate work-related factors that cause/contribute to train operating crew fatigue; 2) identify and develop effective measures for monitoring medical fitness-for-duty; and 3) Implement additional protocols and procedures for identification and, if necessary, treatment of safety-sensitive railroad personnel who may be at risk of having moderate to severe OSA. Measures to address these well-known and documented safety threats are not impeded by technological barriers, nor are huge sums of money required to mitigate them.

The RSIA had specific requirements for railroads to submit Risk Reduction Program plans (RRPs) by the end of 2012, four years after the legislation was passed. All three of these safety threats were listed and required mitigation actions by the railroads. Ten years hence, there has been no public announcement that any railroad has filed an RRP with FRA for approval. Think about that: Ten years since the legislation was passed and six years past the deadline, the public remains at risk from train accidents caused by fatigued, medically unfit, or OSA-affected train operating crews. Over the course of those ten years, train “accidents” caused by these three safety threats have claimed the lives of train operating crews and members of the public alike. Hundreds more have suffered non-fatal injuries in commuter train derailments where engineers at the controls of these trains were subsequently diagnosed with untreated OSA.

My challenge to Congress: Forget about the folly of PTC hearings and punitive fines for failing to meet implementation deadlines. Do something constructive for the public. Demand immediate action from FRA on 1) the safety threats posed by train crew fatigue; 2) measures to monitor and assure that train crews are medically fit-for-duty; and 3) comprehensive protocols for identification and treatment of safety-sensitive railroad personnel who are at risk of having moderate to severe OSA.

Do that and you may prevent further loss of life in the coming years, until PTC deployment is completed.

William C. Keppen Jr., a retired BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) Vice President and third-generation locomotive engineer at BNSF and predecessors Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Burlington Northern, is an independent transportation advocate with experience in fatigue countermeasures programs. A railroad industry veteran of almost 50 years, Keppen provides safety analyses for Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programs in freight, commuter, and light rail transportation. Keppen was Project Coordinator for BNSF’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program, and former BLE General Chairman for the BN Northlines GCA. “I started working on human-factor-caused train accidents in 1980,” he says. “It has been a struggle. I would like to think I have made a difference, but there are still far to many human-factor-caused train ‘accidents,’ which I prefer to refer to as ‘preventable incidents.’”

Categories: C&S, PTC Tags: , , , ,