Keeping an Eye on Train Crews

By Earl F. Weener

Three weeks ago, I accompanied our experienced National Transportation Safety Board investigators to Columbus, Ohio, where they launched to a freight train derailment and subsequent fire. The train was equipped with a data recorder that enabled our investigators to quickly determine the speed, immediately debunking rumors and speculations.

In June, a train collision in rural Oklahoma posed a challenge because the recorders onboard were destroyed. As more freight and commuter trains travel through our Nation’s rail system, it is important to have not just reliable data recorders, but also video event recorders (VER) that not only record what the crew is seeing but also what the crew is doing before and during the accident. The NTSB has issued a safety recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration to mandate inward and outward facing VERs on all locomotives.

Following the 2008 Chatsworth train collision in Southern California, Metrolink became the first railroad in the nation to install inward-facing cameras on all their locomotives in addition to the outward facing cameras already in place. Metrolink cited the move as being a part of a “multilayered safety program.” The NTSB applauds agencies and companies that are proactive in instituting our recommendations. After many accidents, VERs have proven to be invaluable tool for our investigators. These cameras are eyes to our investigators as well as the supervisors who are supposed to be monitoring the crew’s performance for potential safety violations.

Union Pacific stated in 2008 that they were on their way to installing outward facing cameras on more than 90 percent of their locomotives. While this is a step in the right direction, I want to stress that inward facing cameras serve a dual purpose that will enhance safety for both train riders and crews. The Chatsworth accident illustrated that engineers are prone to distraction, just like drivers on our highways. The engineer in the accident was found to be texting minutes prior the accident occurred. In order to stop the cycle of risky behavior, a method of accountability is needed. Inward facing cameras are the answer.

Our railroad system serves as an economic lifeline to both commerce and commuters. Keeping our locomotives engineers alert while operating heavy trains is imperative for railroad safety. We cannot let the mistakes of the past continue by being stubborn and complacent on VERs.

Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Member Weener is a licensed pilot who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

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