Rail Workers: Deadly Tired…but Still Working

By Georgetta Gregory

The rail business is an industry full of tired, stressed workers. It is an epidemic.

I know this first-hand because, before coming to the NTSB several years ago, I spent more than 30 years working in the freight railroad industry. While freight railroad managers and crews count on reliable schedules to make their shipments and make their customers happy, there is no routine schedule for the hundreds of thousands of crewmembers employed in this business. As a result, many railroad workers are literally walking and working in their sleep.

I was one of them.

One of my last jobs before coming to the NTSB was as a trainmaster for a major freight railroad. My duties included safely seeing the arrival and departure of trains in and out of terminals in California. I spent a large majority of my time reviewing train schedules and communicating with train personnel of arriving and departing trains. I coordinated the efforts of nearly 300 crewmembers, including yardmasters, dispatchers and engineers, to execute the transportation plan on my territory. Additionally, I was responsible for making sure all the work was done safely and in accordance with rules and regulations.

The job was very stressful and required long hours. It wasn’t unusual for me to work 80 hours a week. I often worked overnight, evenings, weekends and long hours.

Over time, I became chronically fatigued. I gained weight and began to lose my memory and other cognitive abilities. I had no routine schedule for sleep, because I worked irregular hours that were counter to my circadian rhythms. Eventually, I began to make mistakes at work and in my personal life – potentially dangerous ones.

Noting how my work and home life was suffering, I went to a sleep specialist. The doctor determined that I was fatigued at a dangerous level – to the point where the state of California took my driver’s license. Ironically, while I could no longer drive a car, I was still expected to carry out the meticulous details associated with managing rail yards.

I warned my bosses, but there was little help or response. I made suggestions for improvements, including encouraging the railroad to provide better lineups and opportunities for rest, but I felt unsupported and became concerned for the safety of my crews. Eventually, I left the railroad and began a new career.

My story is not unusual. And when I came to the NTSB as Chief of the Railroad Division, I quickly learned that the NTSB also realized the dangers of fatigue in the railroad business. As a result of our investigations in recent years, we have issued more than 25 recommendations related to managing fatigue—all still open, needing to be addressed.

Wreckage of BNSF train, including lead locomotive of striking train, at Red Oak, Iowa.
Wreckage of BNSF train, including lead locomotive of striking train, at Red Oak, Iowa.

One accident, in particular, involving a freight train perhaps best highlights the danger the NTSB is attempting to eradicate. In April 2011, an eastbound BNSF Railway (BNSF) coal train traveling about 23 mph, collided with the rear end of a standing BNSF maintenance-of-way equipment train near Red Oak, Iowa. The collision resulted in the derailment of 2 locomotives and 12 cars. The lead locomotive’s modular crew cab was detached, partially crushed, and involved in a subsequent diesel fuel fire. Both crewmembers on the striking train were fatally injured.

We determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the crew of the striking train to comply with the signal indication requiring them to operate in accordance with restricted speed requirements and stop short of the standing train because they had fallen asleep due to fatigue resulting from their irregular work schedules and their medical conditions.

As a result of that accident, we recommended that the railway require all employees and managers who perform or supervise safety-critical tasks to complete fatigue training on an annual basis and document when they have received this training, and that they medically screen employees in safety-sensitive positions for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.

Both the conductor and the engineer had worked irregular schedules for several weeks leading up to the accident. During this time, work start times often varied significantly from day to day for both crewmembers. Changing work start and end times can make achieving adequate sleep more difficult, because irregular work schedules tend to disrupt a person’s normal circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, which in turn can lead to chronic fatigue.

Metro North Train 8808 scene
Scene of the derailment of Metro North Train 8808.

More recently, we investigated an accident in New York where a Metro North Railroad locomotive engineer was operating a train with undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The train, on its way toward Grand Central Station in New York, New York, had 115 passengers on board. The engineer headed into a curve with a 30 mph speed limit traveling at 82 mph, resulting in a derailment. Sixty-one people were injured, and 4 passengers died.

The engineer experienced a dramatic work schedule change less than 2 weeks before the accident, with his wake/sleep cycle shifting about 12 hours. Previously, he had complained of fatigue but had not been tested or treated for sleep apnea. After the accident he had a sleep evaluation that identified excessive daytime sleepiness and underwent a sleep study resulting in a diagnosis of severe OSA. Following the study, he was treated successfully for OSA within 30 days of the diagnosis.

The NTSB issued safety recommendation to the Metro-North Railroad to revise its medical protocols for employees in safety-sensitive positions to include specific protocols on sleep disorders, including OSA.

We have issued numerous recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, as well, requiring it to develop medical certification regulations for employees in safety-sensitive positions that include, at a minimum, a complete medical history that includes specific screening for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, a review of current medications, and a thorough physical exam. If such a recommendation had been implemented at the railroad for which I worked, my fatigue most likely would have been caught earlier and mistakes avoided.

(Note: As I was writing this blog, I was heartened to hear that, on March 8, the FRA announced it was seeking public input on the impacts of screening, evaluating and treating rail workers for obstructive sleep apnea.)

And while the railroads and the federal regulators are responsible for addressing this epidemic, so too must railroad workers recognize the dangers of working while fatigued. Yet many are compelled to make money and want to stay ready to react at any hour of the day to avoid missing the opportunity to get paid. To a certain extent, I understand this. And that’s why we must also work with labor unions to address this issue and provide workers the opportunity for sleep, while still allowing them the opportunity to get a paycheck and progress in their careers.

Fatigue in transportation is such a significant concern for the NTSB that it has put “Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents” on its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. It is not just an issue in rail, but an issue in all modes of transportation that must be addressed.

As a former railroad worker and now as a supervisor of railroad accident investigators, I can tell you we still have a long way to go to address this issue. Doing so will require the joint efforts of the regulator, the operator, and the employee. These efforts must be undertaken, because we can’t keep running down this dangerous track.

Georgetta Gregory is chief of NTSB’s Railroad Division.

38 thoughts on “Rail Workers: Deadly Tired…but Still Working”

  1. Heyup!
    A very interesting article, especially for a railway worker on this side of the pond and at this particular time.
    One of the UK’s senior judges, Sir Anthony Hidden died at the start of this month. Sir Anthony was the judge placed in charge of the enquiry into the 1988 Clapham Railway Collision and amongst his many recommendations was the imposition of restrictions on the number of hours a railworker can legally work.
    Effectively, no one on the British railway network is allowed to exceed 12h in a single shift and must have a minimum of 12h rest between shifts.
    There is also a limit to the number of shifts one can work in a row before having at least one full day off.
    There are many factors in the recent heart-breaking tragedies that your railway system has suffered in recent years which would never have been allowed to develop over here.
    If anyone from the NTSB’s Railway Investigation branch would like to discuss this, please get in touch. If nothing else, I can at least give moral support!

  2. Great article. At my 19 years at the railroad, I have work many of a nights tired. It’s a big problem in the railroad industry. If they ever get inward facing cameras, this problem will really come to life. Its a major problem. Railroads only care about moving trains and making money. Once we get our rederal rest after working, they could care less when we go back to work. Something that needs to be adrress.

  3. Myself being a former mechsnical supervisor and an MP&E inspector with the FRA, this is not limited to the train crews but is an issue in all crafts of rail workers. The mechanical people that work on the road repairing and retailing cars and locomotives have the same fatigue issues as well as mechanics in maintenance of way who are seldom home and always on the move!

    1. 95% of all Maintenance of Way and Mechanical employees have set schedules. They know when they are going to work. Most of them also work during the day and sleep at night. Train crews have no idea when they are going to work. I couldn’t tell you the number of times over the last 19 years that I’ve spent the entire day at home; mowing, weed-eating, whatever…then at 10pm the phone rings, time to go to work. When I finally get to bed the next day I’ve been up for 30+ hours. I don’t know any Maintenance or Mechanical employees who have to deal with that. No comparison, really..two different animals.

      1. Except when you derail and we are working for 36 hours solid trying to get the railroad back open. You have hours of service laws….we don’t. You’re right, no comparison.

      2. As a track inspector who is on call 24/7 I have logged 100 hrs of OT in a month or less. This is not uncommon for any MOW employee where I work and especially those who respond to derailments where safety is out the window until the track is back in service

      3. I hate to differ in your opinion of MOW employees. As an track inspecter I was O call 24hrs a day 7days a week. I also had trouble sleeping,going out on call outs tired out of my mind. I had 1 time during a flood got called out at 4am Monday morning…I didn’t give the track back till Wednesday evening 5:45,I was there the whole time with out going home. Transportation is not the only craft dealing with this….by the way iv been fired year half now for not setting red flags!! I did go to doctor on my own because I was not sleeping gettingvery moody forgetting things,and not comprehending things as quickly.

      4. The problem with the NTSB and FRA getting involved when the government gets involved… I have less freedom in my schedule. So, I would say pay is NOT the number one issue. I get a Predictive Work Schedules but now I can only layoff one day a month. Or as Justin says… I get RSIA days but no rest cycle. JUST SAY NO TO MORE GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION… I KNOW – YOU CAN’T HELP YOURSELF. IT’S DISGUSTING.

  4. The fra mandated 8hrs undisturbed rest when I started. Now it’s 10 hrs. But it’s after we work then we could be off additional hrs before being called back in with inadequate lineups. Why not enforce a 10hr call before work instead? That way I can sleep how I need to after being called.

    1. That is the best idea. A co-worker from England talked about knowing his schedule 12 hours in advance. Not sure if that is the Norm in the UK but he says he always knew his schedule.

      1. Heyup Don!
        I work on NetworkRail’s infrastructure monitoring trains and we usually get advice on what we are doing several weeks in advance, though often the actual timings are not issued until a day or so before the run.
        Our drivers however, who work for a different company, either get the timings a week in advance or they get paid a full 12h for the shift, no matter how long or short it is.
        I’m not sure what happens on the Freight or passenger side though, but suspect something similar.

  5. It’s not just the loss of pay for taking time off to rest its more so the harrasment by the railroad i work for. There attendance policies are anything but helping this problem. And it keeps getting worse when they recently overhired so many employees and then laid them off leaving us short on people to work. And when you try to take even am earned paid day off they say no due to manpower shortage.

  6. All, I can say, is I hope this sleep/fatigue problem can be rectified, but I don’t think it will be, due to, as mentioned, the emplyee wanting to keep his paycheck going plust the way railroads work at any hour of the day,24/7, the railroads don’t want to loose money either so hence there is the catch 22. And the railroad doesn’t want to pay an employee to stay at home to sleep, or en route to stop and sleep. And to try and have scheduling on trains, is a no-no for Rail companies, as it costs them money to get trains into a certain time window, and if employee’s time window is over, then that person gets paid for not getting called within the window. And the time windows work good for the employee because he/she has a way better idea when they may be getting called to go to work. And can govern themselves accordingly on day of their work window.

    1. i have 36 years as a locomotive engineer at the cnr-(canada) and this view is so accurate (opion) could not be more accurate this is the reality out there.

  7. I worked for 36years as a conductor CLO and also partisipated in a sleep program for over six months,but it was dropped by the rail comp. that i worked for and no ammendants came out of all this research ,so we just continued on with our lack of sleep

  8. I too after retiring was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I could not drive my car for more than 1hour with out having a break and a nap. I am now using a cpap machine wich helps considerably, because I told them they wanted to cancel my license but with the help from my doctor I managed to retain it. I still get tired during the day but have no problems keeping awake at night. I put the blame for this on to the 47 years of irregular shift work driving trains. I wonder how many other retirees are having a similar problem.

  9. Getting paid is one reason , the most important thing is not getting fired if we lay off a pattern is set if you ask for extra rest that is a pattern . anything we do can result in discipline , from a letter in your file too being fired

  10. Sadly very accurate and I hope this will make people think, especially the government, before we end up with another tragedy like in Lac Megantic.

  11. The FRA must address this issue and invoke a law,,,
    10 hour call for all workers who work in unassigned service.
    It must happen. Human lives matter. Fatigued crews are an industry standard, forcing men and women to jump up and go to work at the whims of managers who do not care of our health and safety,,, it has never been addressed and will never be addressed until they are forced to do so by a Federally mandated Law.

    I have lived and worked 38 years by a 2 hour call and in some cases 1 1/2 hour call, subject to disciplinary rules when I layoff for any reason,, that’s most of every railroad employee working in operations ” train crews”.
    This railroad policy aka ” attendance guidelines” is not for any human to be subjected, cruel punishment for the workers, managers laugh when they only work 30 hours a week and have weekends off..
    We the people have raised this issue for some 20 years,, the FRA has not listened to our plight yet. Fatalities will not be eliminated until a mandatory Law is passed.
    10 hour call is a start…
    Train lineups must be reliable to secure rest.. This has never been addressed, because ” our lives don’t matter to the people in the big offices who have the big picture” the real issue is profits.

    Sarah Feinberg
    Make this a EO and help stop this cruelty to human lives.
    I have been a safety advocate for over 30 years,

    1. Just got home from a 11 hour and 45 minute day only to mark off 1st out know I will be called out on my rest. And has been this way for 2 weeks with Sundays ooff. Needless to say on a Sunday off job they can call you up to 6 pm Saturday And Mark you up on Monday at 4 am. Yes you guessed it got call out at 5 pm s Saturday and outlawed into Sunday because no one is available on the weekends and was called out Monday at 4am for 6 am. Where do you catch up? Can’t sleep stuff needs done around the farm.good luck!!!!

    2. 10 hour call will not solve the problem. You get a 10′ call after just woke up? You’ll be staring at the walls until it’s time to go to work. You will still be suffering from all of the adverse effects from constantly shifting work rest cycles.

      Scheduling rest with calling windows is the only answer.

  12. Why don’t you look at the sleep patterns of those on merchant ships? They are held to a 4 on/8 off watch standing schedule for months at a time. No opportunity to sleep 8 hours for months…..include overtime and anyone can see why many out there are sick. Nobody seems to care.

  13. It’s not so much about losing money, until the NTSB and FRA come down on these railroads for their fear and intimidation tactics that they use against us nothing is going to change. As a former supervisor for one of the major railroads I’m sure this author is completely aware of what I’m talking about. And worked the availability policy used by that railroad and the subsequent consequences against her subordinates, and truly never gave it a second thought until it started to affect ones own personal life and health. The FRA needs to take a good hard look at Rail Safety Improment Act, and the NTSB for that matter . RSIA has single handedly been in my opinion the WORST thing that has been handed down to us working in through freight service. I used to have rest cycle, no more. Rest cycle days allowed me to enjoy the fruits of my labor with my family on days I knew I had off without burning up vacation time and without the chance of facing disciplinary actions! It also allowed me to recharge for a few days without stress and anxiety of the phone ringing. And now the railroad I work for talking about pulling out of the Safety Summit Agreement! Why? Cause their sick of losing disciplinary cases in arbitration. When your working with a fatigued work force it’s like shooting fish in a barrel! But whats it really matter these guys pull out of or violate most agreements and implement new “policy” when ever they feel like they could make a few extra bucks. All the while thumbing there nose to the Unions, NTSB, and the FRA.

  14. Not enough attention seems to be given to the more common cause of fatigue. Although it is briefly mentioned a couple of times, most of the attention seems to be given to rare sleeping disorders such as forms of Sleep Apnea… The much more common denominator causing the extremely dangerous effects of chronic fatigue is the lack of a regular sleep pattern.

    Why is not having a regular and consistent sleep cycle not focused on more intently? This is something that ALL Engineers and Conductors experience. The effects of chronic fatigue is more than just a safety concern. Chronic fatigue is linked to many adverse conditions to a persons health such as dementia, immune system problems, psychological issues such as depression and many more.

    Changing the railroads dismissive attitude in allowing crews to have a proper sleep cycle should be at the forefront of any changes done in the industry. Again, ALL engineers and conductors are subjected to the harmful and dangerous effects of chronic fatigue due to the lack of a normal sleeping pattern, very few people have sleep apnea. Due to this, ensuring that all train crews are required to have conditions that would allow them a regular sleep cycle would not only remove a great danger to the crews and the communities the trains operate in, but would also allow these crew members to have a healthier and longer life.

  15. It is a common problem in our industry. Especially a seasoned as they call it employee who is a liability to the railroads. Look to see Hitler tactics coming in the near future to all locations to satisfy the stockholders big pockets. I have 2 sons that always wanted the life of their Dad big money and determined layoffs when u desired. I am ashamed they have been hired to a life of living by the phone and inadequate rest.
    HELP US ALL OUT AND STOP THE INSANE RAILROADS NOW.

    I am a 36 yr veteran I laid off 3weekends in a row for one day each weekend1 for sickness, 1 for church and 1 for weather and was called on the carpet and threatened to be fired. FIRE ME AND I WILL OWN THE RAILROAD IF POSSIBLE DO NOT SUCUMB TO THESE TACTICS.
    JL VARNELL

  16. Working for the CNW & UPRR for over 41 years, I was very surprised to see that train crews (except for 1) are allowed to sleep while on duty if they are waiting to yard a train or waiting to be picked up and driven back to their starting point. The 3 major rules were Rule G ( drinking or drugs) no stealing and no sleeping. Maybe there are some changes slowly creating a new, smarter culture.

    1. CP used to be that way. If we were stuck in a siding 1 person could sleep. But they did away with all sleeping even if we die on hours waiting for a recrew, we can’t sleep. They are always pulling tapes when we have inward cameras just to catch people

  17. The “10 hour before being called law” is the only thing that’s going to make it safe out here!!! But until then countless people are going to continue to die at the controls due to fatigue.

  18. Hi, I work in Rail industry. I became interested in this site when my old high school classmate Debbie Hersmann was here. Anyways, lots of times we workers check the boards to get our rest and plan our meals and being called accordingly. Then things change drastically and you are called short. Ever try telling that to crew caller? Im just saying sometimes guys do want to make money, but I bet most time the call guys were waiting on moved up or back enough hours to change the employees rest status. Thanks for the article and the work you guys do.

    —————————————–

  19. Its 10pm. The phone rings, it’s the railway.They are calling you to come to work in two hours.  You tell the person on the phone calling you that you just looked at the online program designed to tell you when you’re going to work and that it said you’d be going to work at 8 am the next morning and not at midnight.  You tell her that your too tired to drive a train loaded full of explosive chemicals through populated cities because you’ve been up all day as you weren’t expecting to go to work until the next morning. She tells you that you have to take the call or that you could possibly be facing a formal investigation for not taking the train.  In the back of your mind you remember last week when your co worker was literally fired because he refused to take a train unexpectedly in the middle of the night when he was exhausted. You’re already almost at the point of the railway firing you from the previous times you tried to do the safe thing and the company didn’t like it, so you take the call. Fast forward eleven hours. It’s now eleven am and you’re still driving the train. You literally are doing everything you can to stay awake but you just can’t.  Four hours ago you called the Rail Traffic Co-ordinator and told them that you’re fatigued and that your intent is to take eight hours rest when you reach the tenth hour of being on the train. They don’t listen and force you to keep driving it another two hours past when you should be. You’ve now been driving the train for over eleven hours, your falling asleep, and behind you there are over two hundred cars filled with oil and explosive chemicals. Beneath you the rail is literally falling apart and the railroad ties are shattered from decades of abuse and neglect. Every piece of equipment you use on a daily basis is literally in tatters from the railways cutting every possible cost to appease the shareholder executive board. You are fed up and have been trying your best for decades to cry out to government agencies for help. You’ve done everything you can to tell the management at the railway that the safety systems they have in place just aren’t working. No one listens to you, and when you do stand up for what you know in your heart to be right, the railway makes you a targeted employee and tries un-relentingly to fire you, so you stay quiet and nothing changes…….

                Railway Self Regulation has failed!  How many more people have to die? How many more derailments have to happen? How many more acres of land have to be devastated? How many more rivers polluted? How many more towns have to be completely wiped out before someone, somewhere will stand up against the railways self regulating themselves at the expense of nature, communities and everyone and everything except the shareholders and the managers receiving multimillion dollar bonuses. The concerned citizens of Canada and the informed and consequently concerned railroaders of Canada are urgently calling out to the current administrations to end the on-going charade that is railway self regulation.  This isn’t like the financial industry which under self regulation destroyed people’s financial outlook. This is an industry that has literally destroyed killed and maimed human beings. The time has come to end railway self regulation!

    1. Have any of you at the FRA or NTSB taken a look at the CSXT’s attendance policy? There management thinking is still in the steam engine days. The railroads know exactly what the problem is. The FRA and NTSB know exactly what the problem is. They have known it for years. Nothing of any substance has been done to correct the problem. Just look at how much LIMBO time is allowed per month; that’s a joke! I’ve been told by CSX train crews on the Atlanta Division that they are even instructed to secure their trains after they expired under hours of service. One trainmasters and dispatchers seem to think, securing your train is not a violation of the hours of service. The only answer I can see, to the sleep deprivation problem, is for the railroad industry to adopt the Airline’s method of calling crews. They have a calling window. If you’re on the DAY-SHIFT window, 07:00 to 15:00 and are not called on duty by 15:00 (3pm), then you go off the board until O7:00 the next day. If you were first out, then the next morning you go back to you window first out. No more waking up in the morning first out,  sitting around all day they finally getting called on duty for 5pm. This Airline method was tried on the Union Pacific’s Los Angeles Division, they called it the “Pod-Pool.” It worked well. It requires more employees and better crew dispatching. Hire more people! That’s money! Never happen, and the Government will never force them to do it. We all know why. Just think of what one bad wreck cost the railroads. Do the math, that wreck would pay for a lot of people.
      Retired Locomotive Engineer for a Class 1 railroad.

  20. Good Summary Georgetta. I’v been out (Volentary Severence) since 2000, and Worked in Mech, Operations, Trans & others. Sounds like not much has changed. As you stated, Field Supervisors (& 24hr Center Mngrs) many times have it even worse than T&E or MoW.

  21. No one cares. Its about how much profit can be made. You can recommend better ways but it wont be considered if it will cost extra. Employees cant layoff if there tired because they will be terminated Unless laws are made it will never change.

  22. ” many are compelled to make money and want to stay ready to react at any hour of the day to avoid missing the opportunity to get paid.”

    More accurately: compelled by their employer to not miss work with threat of dismissal.

    Any railroad that does not have a no fault method for a worker in a safety sensitive position to pass on a call to work due to fatigue is literally thumbing their nose at safety.

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