February 8, 2002

CHICAGO–Were the crossing gates down on time? Were the warning lights flashing as they were programmed to do–26 seconds before Amtrak’s City of New Orleans reached the crossing?

And if they were, did truck driver John R. Stokes ignore the signals and weave his semi-trailer loaded with with 18.5 tons of steel re-bar around the gates and into the path of the train, causing a fiery collision and derailment that burned 11 of the train’s passengers to death and injured 122?

On February 5 the nation’s most prestigious and experienced panel of transportation accident investigators answered “Yes” to all three questions. The National Transportation Safety Board, after nearly three years of analyzing physical evidence, interrogating witnesses, examining written and computerized records, and reconstructing and simulating the deadly wreck, ruled that neither Amtrak nor the Illinois Central Railroad caused the deadly March 15, 1999, truck/train collision.

The most likely cause, the Board said, was a decision by Stokes to ignore the flashing red lights, gun his tractor around the lowered gates and try to beat the oncoming train over the crossing. In fact, investigators determined the gates had to have been down because Stokes’ tire tracks showed that he had steered his truck into the opposing lane to bypass the gate blocking his lane and then had swerved back into the original lane to avoid the gate on the other side.

“This is the best match of tire marks and simulation we’ve ever had,” said Larry Jackson, head of the NTSB’s research-and-engineering section.

Why did Stokes take such a foolish chance?

Probably because he was fatigued, the Board said.

“The truck driver had ample time to safely stop his truck and avoid an accident, but likely as a result of fatigue, he failed to respond appropriately to the signals and instead decided to attempt to cross ahead of the train,” the NTSB report said.

How did the NTSB establish that Stokes was fatigued? By examining receipts for diesel fuel that Stokes had purchased while driving his truck in the days leading up to the accident and comparing them with the fleet dispatching records of his employer, Peotone-based Melco Transfer Inc. The paper trail showed that just prior to the accident Stokes had made a round trip from Illinois to Ohio that left him with only “three to five hours of fragemented sleep” in the 37 hours prior to the tragedy.

Federal law forbids truck drivers to operate a tractor-trailer combination for more than 10 continuous hours in a 24-hour period. The investigators also found that Stokes failed to record the Ohio trip in his logbook–another federal violation.

“The tragedy at Bourbonnais is just one more example of the persising abuse of fatigued personnel in the transportation industry,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Not only truck drivers, but railroad crews and dispatchers, commercial airline pilots, and a variety of support personnel are routinely called back to duty without adequate sleep and then subjected to long, often tedious workplace routines that aggravate the effects of the fatigue these employees already are suffering. Managers in the transportation industry are expected to ‘push the envelope’ on employee working hours to achieve targeted levels of productivity and cost control, even in workplaces governed by hours-of-service statutes.”

Although hours-of-service violations are common in all sectors of the transportation industry, Szabo said, they remain especially severe in the long-distance truckload business because of the disappearance of unions which formerly helped drivers protect themselves against unreasonable demands on the part of employers.

“Following trucking deregulation in 1981, the structure of the motor-carrier industry changed, especially on the truckload side,” Szabo said. “While Less Than Truckload (LTL) freight hauling is still dominated by large corporations such as UPS and Roadway that use unionized drivers operating on regular routes and schedules, the truckload industry mostly uses ‘independent’ drivers who are not actually employees of the carrier. They simply contract to provide their services–and often their tractor or even a tractor and trailer-to a commercial carrier or directly to a shipper. These drivers stay with the load all the way from origin to destination, sleeping in the rear of the truck cab when they can but always under pressure from the carrier to deliver the load as soon as possible and then find another to keep the revenue stream flowing. To cut costs, there is no relief driver and no en-route supervision to ensure that drivers get adequate rest.

“Because the consider themselves independent, these post-Deregulation drivers refuse to unionize as a means of defending themselves against unfair employer or shipper demands,” Szabo said. “A whole series of government and private studies have documented the pressures to which these drivers are subjected. Even when federal law mandates that they must rest they bypass the opportunity to do so, because if the dispatcher offers them a load and they refuse, they know they will never get business from that dispatcher again.”

The problem is compounded, Szabo said, by the difficulty of enforcing federal and state hours-of-service limits on millions of truck drivers who are constantly in motion.

“There aren’t enough state troopers out there to set up roadblocks and check every driver’s logbook to see when he last slept,” Szabo said, “and even if there were, a serious roadblock program would bring interstate commerce to a halt. Besides, drivers routinely doctor their logbooks by making entries for rest periods they never took. That’s why long-haul truckers call their logs ‘comic books.'”

But Szabo said railroad employees have no reason to gloat over the superior protection offered by their union contracts.

“While fully complying with the letter of the federal Hours of Service Act, railroads can still order their employees to work up to 100 hours in a calendar week,” he said. “Mandatory 70-hour weeks are all too common in this industry. Every railroad in the country continues to push the envelope and give itself the benefit of the doubt wherever the slightest ambiguity occurs in the hours-of-service part of the contract. Every yardmaster, trainmaster, road foreman of engines, roadmaster and superintendent knows how to squeeze the last permissible minute of company time out of every employee in his jurisdiction.”

Szabo said the Bourbonnais accident suggests two lessons.

“First, the political and corporate decisionmakers in this country have to understand the economic, social and personal consequences of continuing to tolerate a loosey-goosey attitude toward employee fatigue,” he said. “The issue is dynamite, and ignoring it will not make it go away. The next Bourbonnais will be worse, and it could just as easily involve a 300-pasenger airliner or a 100,000-ton supertanker as a train or truck.

“Second,” he said, “this country has got to get serious about developing a long-term program to grade-separate the principal railroad main lines from the street-and-highway system. The economy is growing. There are going to be more cars and trucks, and now that many shippers and travelers are returning to rail, there are going to be more trains as well.

“More trains plus more motor vehicles–you do the math,” Szabo said. “They’re going to run into each other more often. Even with stricter law enforcement, high-tech crossing surveillance and better driver education, we’re still going to see growth in grade-crossing intrusions. It’s not enough to educate. Ultimately, we have to separate.”