Monday, May 09, 2005

"Engineers and conductors sleep on trains. Anyone who tells you different is not being straight with you,"

It's late, I'm tired and I'm still writing. At least I'm not driving a train.

Here we have a story of well-known fatigue problems among workers responsible for carrying the 1.7 million carloads of the nation's hazardous materials every year, and the Association of American Railroads who would rather deny that obvious fatigue issues exist despite clear evidence to the contrary:

When a Union Pacific freight train thundered into tiny Macdona, Texas, just before dawn June 28, the engineer and conductor had clocked more than 60 hours in the previous week, working the long, erratic shifts that are common in the railroad industry.

They flew through a stop signal at 45 mph and slammed into another freight train that was moving onto a side track. No one even touched the brakes.

Chlorine gas from a punctured tank car killed the conductor and two townspeople, while dozens of others suffered breathing problems and burning eyes as the toxic cloud drifted almost 10 miles. Hundreds were evacuated within a 2-mile radius of the accident.

Federal investigators suspect that both of the Union Pacific crewmen had fallen asleep. In the weeks before the crash, each man's work schedule had at least 15 starting times at all hours of the day.

The Macdona crash illustrates a grim fact of life for thousands of engineers, brake operators and conductors who guide giant freight trains across the country: Exhaustion can kill.

Two decades after federal officials identified fatigue as a top safety concern, the problem continues to haunt the railroad industry, especially the largest carriers responsible for moving the vast majority of the nation's rail-borne freight.

"Engineers and conductors sleep on trains. Anyone who tells you different is not being straight with you," said Diz D. Francisco, a veteran engineer and union official who works out of Bakersfield for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

I've written about this incident before, but in the context of transporting hazardous cargo. Combined with hazardous material problems (like the train crash that killed nine in South Carolina several months ago), the incidents cited in this article are chilling:
National Transportation Safety Board records show that entire crews have nodded off at the controls of mile-long freight trains weighing 10,000 tons, some of them loaded with hazardous materials.

In a 1984 Wyoming crash, a Burlington Northern engineer had only 6 1/2 hours of sleep in the 48 hours before the accident; his conductor had five hours of sleep.

Outside St. Louis in 2001, a Union Pacific engineer who had been up for 24 hours with only a short nap failed to heed three warning signals and orders to limit his speed before triggering a chain-reaction crash involving two other trains. The wreck injured four and caused $10 million in damage.

A year later, in Des Plaines, Ill., a Union Pacific engineer fighting to stay awake after more than 22 hours without sleep blew past warning signals and broadsided another train, severely injuring two crew members.

After a Chicago & North Western train collision in March 1995, engineer Gerald A. Dittbenner sued the railroad — and received a $500,000 settlement, his lawyers say — over his incessant 12-hour shifts and irregular work schedules.

Dittbenner, 49, misread a stop signal after being awake almost 30 hours and hit the rear of an empty coal train outside Shawnee Junction, Wyo. Seconds before the impact, Dittbenner jumped from the locomotive and broke his neck. Unable to do strenuous work because of persistent pain, he now works as a locksmith in Scottsbluff, Neb.
As happens in so many other accident investigation, the root causes of these problems have been covered by conclusions that essentially blame the worker for falling asleep or "poor judgment, miscommunication and failure to follow operating procedures — errors that experts say can be triggered by fatigue."The root cause of the fatigue is not careless workers, but scheduling problems:
A 1997 survey of more than 1,500 freight crew members by the North American Rail Alertness Partnership — a group of industry, government and union officials — found that about 80% had reported to work while tired, extremely tired or exhausted.

Though fatigue can affect passenger train crews, it is primarily a problem for the 40,000 to 45,000 engineers, brake operators and conductors assigned to unscheduled freight service.

Many put in 60 to 70 hours a week, sometimes more. They can be called to work any time during the day or night, constantly disrupting their sleep patterns.

The irregular shifts often place bleary-eyed crews at the controls between 3 and 6 a.m., when experts say the body's natural circadian rhythm produces maximum drowsiness.

Engineers, brake operators and conductors liken on-the-job fatigue to being in a constant state of jet lag.

"There is no set rest schedule. It changes all the time, and it is hard to adjust," said Doug Armstrong of Huntington Beach, a veteran Union Pacific engineer who often works 12-hour days, six days a week. "People have a normal rest cycle, but a railroad is anything but normal."
And the problem here is antiquated laws, in this case, the 98 year old federal Hours of Service Act. The act requires train operators to have 8 hours off, but that doesn't allow for commuting, family obligations, meals -- as well as adquate sleep. In addition, it's legal for engineers, conductors and brake operators to work 432 hours a month, as opposed to truckers who are allowed to drive no more than 260 hours.

And it seems that no story of workplace -- or community -- hazard is complete without an industry association trying to deny that the problem exists. The Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry's trade organization and lobbying arm, commissioned a study of the fatigue problem and finding ways to reduce accidents. But the study was canceled in 1998 when it found that "engineers who put in more than 60 hours a week were at least twice as likely to be in an accident as those working 40 hours."
"They did not want this finding," said [the former AAR analyst Donald]Krause, who once studied rail safety for the federal General Accounting Office and is now a business writer living outside Chicago. "The railroads fear it could lead to restrictions on hours and government regulation, which could cost them money. But something needs to be done. One of these days, they are going to wipe out a town."

Association officials say Krause's research was halted because of budget cuts, not out of a desire to bury the conclusions.
Yeah, I'm sure.

Among the reasons for the ARA to not want to see those results:
Hiring has not kept pace with a steady increase in rail freight volumes, about 4.4% a year on average since 1991, federal data show.

Corporate mergers and cost-cutting during the 1990s led to staff reductions. In 2002, a change in pension rules led to 12,000 railroad worker retirements, twice as many as the year before.

Since 1990, overall railroad employment has declined more than 25%. Department of Labor statistics show that, until recently, the hiring of engineers has been flat for years.
There seems to be some dispute about the role of unions. According to the article, rail unions have supported the resulting overtime:
Railroad unions have at times resisted proposed solutions to the fatigue problem if they threatened to limit the freedom of their members to work long hours and maximize earnings. With overtime and high mileage, salaries for engineers can reach $100,000 a year.

"It is a two-edged sword," said Brian Held, 47, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe engineer for 10 years. "The company wants to save money and doesn't hire what it needs to. Union members don't want the boards so full of workers they can't make the money they want. It makes for a dangerous situation."
Although, on the other hand:
In December 2003, Union Pacific unsuccessfully sued a group of unionized conductors alleging that they were taking too much time off during weekends and holidays, disrupting commerce along a major Kansas line in violation of the Railway Labor Act.

The United Transportation Union countered that the railroad was severely understaffed in the area and many conductors were exhausted from working for weeks — sometimes months — without a day off.

"We were running with a skeleton crew," said union official Greg Haskin. "Guys were burned out and calling in sick. They were working 12- to 16-hour days up to 90 days straight. You can't expect people to work like that and be safe."

Union Pacific declined to discuss the case.
In 1999, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Commission
Establish within 2 years scientifically based hours-of-service regulations that set limits on hours of service, provide predictable work and rest schedules, and consider circadian rhythms and human sleep and restrequirements.
But, of course, we are faced with the usual debate in this administration about whether or not the railroads should be left to voluntary programs to reduce fatigue, or whether there should be regulations.

Guess which side is winning.

The FRA has announced that it
will continue to monitor the results from these various cooperative arrangements and research projects on fatigue and, as the need arises, take relevant regulatory action and/or recommend legislative action.