Lesson Learned? Perhaps, But Too Late For Some

Written by William C. Keppen, Jr.
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NJT 2016 wreck at Hoboken Terminal. ABC News photo.

A recently issued arbitration decision directs New Jersey Transit (NJT) to re-employ Thomas Gallagher, the locomotive engineer who in 2016 ran an NJT commuter train into a bumping post and onto the platform at Hoboken Terminal. While the arbitrator found that the engineer “... bore some responsibility for the crash,” she also found that, “... NJ Transit had failed to follow its own procedures for screening engineers in his case.”

Less than three months before the crash, Gallagher had undergone a periodic medical evaluation, and the railroad did not produce any evidence that its doctor had performed the specific screening procedure for sleep apnea, according to the ruling. A sleep test, administered shortly after the Hoboken derailment, found Gallagher had severe and untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The incident resulted in a fatal injury to a person on the station platform and nonfatal injuries to more than 100 passengers on board the train. Significant, but less important than human lives, the accident resulted in tens of millions of dollars in damage to the train terminal and subsequent medical expenses and litigation.

Think about this: Almost three years before Hoboken, Metro-North locomotive engineer William Rockefeller ran the train he was operating off a 30 mph speed-restricted curve at 82 mph. That incident resulted in four fatalities and 61 non-fatal injuries. A sleep test conducted shortly after the incident determined that Rockefeller had severe OSA.

This should have been a wake-up call for management teams of all commuter operations in the New York metro area and across the country. In fact, it should have been a wake-up call for the management teams of freight railroads as well. But it wasn’t, or we likely would not have experienced NJT – Hoboken Terminal 2016, LIRR – Atlantic Terminal 2017, Union Pacific head-on collision near Hoxie, Ark. 2014, BNSF head-on collision near Panhandle, Tex. 2016 (below). Undiagnosed or untreated OSA was determined to be a cause factor for every one of these incidents. The casualty count for these four incidents included ten fatal and more than 200  non-fatal injuries.

BNSF head-on collision near Panhandle, Tex. 2016

Passenger railroads have harked to the wake-up call by implementing proactive sleep disorder screening and treatment programs for safety-sensitive employees. I am less certain about what has or is being done by the management teams of America’s freight railroads. While nobody in management has a responsibility to respond, I would like to give them all an opportunity to share with the public, either individually or jointly though the Association of American Railroads, just what they are doing to proactively address the safety threats associated with unidentified or insufficiently treated OSA.

What right does the public have to know, you ask? Being both a public citizen and a retired locomotive engineer, I will take liberty to speak for the public.

Freight railroads have an admirable safety record, overall, but it is far from perfect. And, when you are hauling all kinds of freight, including hazardous materials, through America’s towns and cities, sometimes at speeds up to 70 mph, you have a responsibility do to everything possible to protect our safety. You cannot do that simply with policies that direct locomotive engineers and conductors to report medical conditions, like OSA, to you, when they become aware that they may be affected.

Some may do that, but others will not, for one of two reasons: 1) They are not aware of the fact that they have the condition, which is entirely possible. 2) They fear—no, they know—management will pull them out of service for an indefinite period of time, for diagnosis, treatment and compliance monitoring.

The public has a right to know because their lives, homes and businesses are put at risk every time a train rumbles through their communities. If the train crew is not well rested, alert and attentive to work tasks, they are even more at risk.

At a recent hearing in front of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials on the State of Railroad Labor, AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies had this to say on behalf of member railroads: “While railroads are safer today than ever before, they want to be even safer.” I would posit, if AAR member railroads do not now have comprehensive, periodic medical fitness screening protocols and procedures for their safety-sensitive employees, they really are not living up to the spirit of Jefferies’ words and commitments.

For additional perspective, see David Schanoes’ editorial

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.’”