Let me off this plane—no, train

Written by William C. Keppen, Jr.
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The infamous Spuyten Duyvil wreck: On Dec. 1, 2013, Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller nodded off at the throttle, missed a signal and entered a 30-mph curve at 80 mph. Four passengers were killed and dozens more were seriously injured. The National Transportation Safety Board said that, subsequent to the incident, Rockefeller was diagnosed with severe OSA, which was not detected during the course of his regular medical fitness-for-duty exams.

I am a frequent flier. Since very few commercial airliners crash, I naturally assume that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines themselves are doing everything possible to ensure that flight crews are medically fit to fly commercial airplanes.

But, my spouse worries about everything, including my safety when I drive, sharing the roadway with huge eighteen-wheelers; when I’m riding with others; when I board an airplane; and even when I get on a train. She worries about trucks, planes and trains crashing in our backyard (we live very close to the tracks). Imagine that.

I told her, “I will do some research and show you that federal government regulatory agencies for airlines, trucking companies and railroads are doing everything possible to ensure the people who operate their equipment are medically fit to do so.”

As I said, I am a frequent flier, so I thought I would start with the airline regulator, the FAA. I accessed the FAA website and found substantial information about flight crew medical certification. FAA has a network of certified Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs) who perform pre-employment and comprehensive periodic medical examinations on commercial airline crews and other pilots. AMEs are required to look for any medical conditions that might adversely affect performance and alertness, including sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). If an applicant for medical certification has a medical condition, such as high blood pressure or OSA, that is not sufficiently treated, medical certification will be denied.

Next stop, the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA), which regulates the trucking industry. Like the FAA, FMCSA is charged with issuing commercial motor vehicle operator licenses and medical certificates. Sure enough, it has similar requirements for periodic driver medical certification by Certified Medical Examiners (CMEs). The list of potentially disqualifying medical conditions is very similar to that of the FAA. However, if the applicant has been diagnosed, properly treated and compliant with treatment, a conditional medical certificate may be issued.

I’m feeling pretty good now, safe in an airplane and pretty safe on the roads as well, except for the fact that there are an awful lot of drivers out there who may not be medically fit driving non-commercial vehicles.

On to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) website. The FRA is responsible for regulating freight and passenger rail companies (not rail transit). I searched medical certification and medical standards for safety-sensitive railroad personnel, like locomotive engineers and train conductors, on the FRA website. What did I find?

FRA medical certification protocols for engineers and conductors require these employees to meet vision and hearing standards tri-ennially. That’s it—vision and hearing, once every three years. No certified medical examiners. No medical history form to fill out, prior to a physical examination. No reason to have that, because periodic physical examinations are not required.

Now I’m really confused and concerned. The engineer that is operating the passenger * train I’m riding at 60, 70, 80 mph or greater may have untreated diabetes, high blood pressure, OSA, etc., that could easily affect alertness and performance. What about the engineer operating the freight trains on the tracks next to my home? He or she could fall asleep, miss a signal and collide with another train. My home and my family could be wiped out.

Now I’m really concerned. I call the FRA to see if I am missing something. No, I am told, you have it right, our medical fitness-for-duty standards include vision and hearing, only.

Now comes the hard part. I have to report to my spouse. You should have seen the look on her face when I told her about FRA medical fitness standards. She said, “You are cleared to fly; be careful out there on the streets and highways—but don’t you dare get on a train, unless and until the railroads have comprehensive medical certification requirements for train crews.”

I replied, “Not to worry, I already made that decision. Now we have to figure out what to do with the freight railroads or move as far away from the tracks as we can.”

William C. Keppen, Jr.

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.’”

* Whatever state, local, or self-imposed medical standards may have been in place, they were not rigorous enough to prevent three recent and deadly commuter train derailments in the New York Metropolitan Area.

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