May 14, 2002
CHICAGO (May 14)–Railroad accidents have risen 15 percent in the last three years, while the National Transportation Safety Board has renewed its plea for adequate rest in the transportation industry.
“After many years of improved safety on the U.S. railroad system following deregulation in 1980, the Federal Railroad Administration is reporting that the accident rate now is climbing again,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “That is disturbing, and given that we continue to receive complaints of manpower shortages at several of the major carriers throughout the state, it is natural to suspect that crew fatigue is part of the problem.
“Although most of the rail accidents reported by the FRA are derailments,” Szabo said, “we also are seeing a disturbing increase in train-to-train collisions that appear to be caused by poor train handling, poor dispatching or the failure of a crew to respond appropriately to dispatcher instructions or signal indications.
“All of that suggests fatigue,” Szabo said. “Clearly, public safety, as well as the safety of rail employees, dictates the need to insure a sufficient pool of qualified employees to allow for adequate rest and quality of life.”
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Marion Blakey says her panel continues to see too many accidents caused by lack of adequate rest.
“Throughout all modes of transportation, our investigations have found that lost sleep equals lost lives,” Blakey told a group of transportation attorneys in Washington last week. She said a 1999 NTSB study showed that despite several initiatives, little real progress has been made at incorporating the latest research on sleep issues into hours-of-service regulations for airline crews, train crews, commercial-vehicle drivers and towboat pilots. She recommended that the FRA, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard all adopt new fatigue regulations based on scientific studies of fatigue tolerance in their respective modes.
“Railroad workers in Illinois certainly would welcome solutions to chronic manpower shortages and the ability to get adequate rest,” Szabo said. “Work weeks of 70-80 hours are fairly common in the railroad industry. These long hours of work are compounded by members’ increasing frustration over not being able to plan a rest period because the extra board is posting false information about when they will be called.”
Szabo said an extra board may show an employee to be five times out, but because of crew shortages the railroad will drop several pools and suddnely subject resting employee to immediate call.
“This kind of ‘bait-and-switch’ means that even if an employee has an ample amount of time off, he cannot plan his sleeping period effectively,” Szabo added. “When you get off work you don’t know whether to get your sleep at the beginning or the end of your expected rest period.”
Szabo said the fatal head-on collision of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe container train and a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train at Placentia, Calif., two weeks ago, as well as the May 11 non-fatal head-on bump involving two BNSF coal trains in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, suggest at least the possibility of crew fatigue.
“Both of these accidents occurred in signaled territory, the signals were operating normally, and the crews tested negative for drugs and alcohol,” Szabo said. “That means neither collision should have happened. It is time for the railroad industry to address chronic manpower shortages so that employees can enjoy rest-work cycles that assure a higher level of safety and a higher quality of life.”