After the deadly crash of a Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx, N.Y. last Sunday morning, engineer William Rockefeller told Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees (ACRE), that he had nodded off moments before the train rounded a sharp curve and derailed. Although Mr. Rockefeller’s admission may come as a surprise to commuters who ride the train to and from work every day, it actually underscores some very common problems among all transportation professionals who haul passengers: fatigue and “highway hypnosis.”
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman told NBC News that fatigue is an “insidious problem, particularly in the rail industry.”
Investigators have said that Mr. Rockefeller, who has driven trains for Metro-North for nearly two decades with an unblemished record, woke up as the train cars started grinding against the rails going into the tricky curve. He immediately applied the brakes, but it was too late to stop the seven-car train from rounding the curve at 82 mph – almost three times faster than the maximum speed limit. Four passengers died and nearly 70 others were injured when then train derailed and toppled over.
But Mr. Rockefeller wasn’t the first train engineer to fall asleep at the helm of a train, and he almost certainly won’t be the last.
The Huffington Post recently interviewed several veteran train engineers who “are keenly aware of the potential consequences of dozing” on the job, yet all of them admitted to “alarming moments where they caught themselves on the verge of a nap – or even sleeping.”
CSX Corp. engineer told the Huffington Post that sleepiness and nodding off are “part of our culture.”
“I have nodded off, just as thousands of rail workers do every hour,” he told the Huffington Post, adding that occupational fatigue has taken a toll on his health in the form of panic attacks and anxiety.
Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of the Railroad Workers United union, told the Huffington Post that fatigue and sleeplessness are a “constant, chronic problem on the railroads.” A recent union survey found that 56 percent of railroad workers said that fatigue has adversely affected their job performance.
Congress has mandated U.S. railroads to install technology that would automatically slow or stop trains in risky areas and circumstances by 2015. Metro-North has not yet installed the safety systems.