Testimony of Mark V. Rosenker, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Before the
U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials
Fatigue in the Rail Industry
February 13, 2007

 


Good afternoon Chairwoman Brown, Ranking Member Shuster and Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Mark Rosenker, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.   Madame Chairwoman, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, the Members of the Subcommittee and staff for inviting the Safety Board to testify today on the topic of Fatigue in the Rail Industry and for your continued interest in furthering the safety of our Nation’s railways.

The Safety Board has long been concerned with the sources and consequences of human fatigue in the rail industry.  I would like to discuss three areas related to that concern: the decades-long history of fatigue-caused railroad accidents that the Safety Board has investigated, the equally long history of safety recommendations that we have made to address the problem, and the frustration we share with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regarding its lack of legislative authority to address the root causes of fatigue through scientifically based principles of workload and fatigue management.  

Fatigue-caused Railroad Accidents

Over the past 23 years, the Safety Board has investigated 16 major railroad accidents in which we established that the probable cause was crewmember fatigue.  We have investigated numerous other railroad accidents in which we believe fatigue played a contributing role.  The earliest railroad accident investigation in which the Board attributed the probable cause to fatigue was a collision between two freight trains at Wiggins, Colorado, on April 13, 1984.  About a week later, on April 22, 1984, two more freight trains collided near Newcastle, Wyoming.  The Board found that the probable cause of that accident was that the crew of the striking train had fallen asleep and so had failed to comply with restrictive signals.

Since 1984, fatigue-related train accidents have continued until the most recent collision between two freight trains at Macdona, Texas, on June 28, 2004.  I know that Vice Chairman Sumwalt appeared before this Subcommittee just two weeks ago and related the details of the Macdona investigation so I will not elaborate on that particular accident.  However, the Safety Board did find that both the crewmembers’ failure to obtain sufficient restorative rest before reporting for duty, because of their ineffective use of off-duty time and the Union Pacific Railroad’s train crew scheduling practices, which inverted the crewmembers’ work/rest periods, contributed to the accident. Work as a train crewmember entails an unpredictable job schedule that can make it difficult for employees to effectively balance their personal and work lives.  We found that the unpredictability of the Union Pacific train crewmembers’ work schedules may have encouraged this crew to delay obtaining rest in the hope that they would not be called to work until later on the day of the accident.

Fatigue related accidents have occurred across all regions of the country, and most every major railroad has had at least one fatigue-caused accident.  Moreover, no type of railroad operation is immune from the effects of fatigue.  Although the majority of the 16 accidents cited above involve freight operations, our investigation case files contain fatigue accidents involving long-distance passenger trains, commuter trains, light rail operations, and even subway trains.          

The work schedules of rail crewmembers permit repetitive 12-hour days that we know lead to cumulative fatigue, and when the workers’ commute, limbo time, and family responsibilities are factored into their daily schedules, the conditions for exceedingly long days leading to acute fatigue are evident.  Limbo time refers to a crew’s time spent awaiting transportation and travel time to their final release point after the expiration of their service time (which can be substantial, adding additional hours to the work day).  The relatively short mandatory periods of time off currently in place do not afford the opportunity for fully restorative sleep.

Safety Recommendations Addressing Fatigue

In the past two decades, the Safety Board has issued 33 recommendations specific to railroad employee fatigue.  The FRA received 8 and the others have gone to rail carriers and operating unions.

Just as our accident history traces the problem of fatigue in railroad accidents, the Safety Board’s recommendation history defines the actions that we think could address the problem.  Beginning with the Burlington Northern accident that occurred in Colorado in 1984, we recommended enhanced nighttime supervision and crew alerters.  In 1989, after the investigation of a Consolidated Rail Corporation accident in Pennsylvania, we recommended that train dispatchers have qualified backup relief and mandatory breaks. We also asked for the railroad company to reduce the irregularity and unpredictability of crewmember’s work/rest schedules and provide education and counseling to help them avoid sleep deprivation.  Two years later, we recommended to another operator that it develop education and counseling to help crewmembers avoid sleep deficits and sleep deprivation.  We then expanded the scope of that recommendation, sending it to the Association of American Railroads, member carriers, and the operating unions. We went further and asked all rail carriers to develop policies that would allow an employee to report off duty when they are impaired by lack of sleep.  In 1991, as a result of a Norfolk Southern accident in Georgia, we asked FRA to study fatigue and explore parameters of an optimum alerter system for locomotives.  Recommendations concerning the distribution of fatigue awareness materials and fatigue training were also made to Union Pacific Railroad (1999) and to the Canadian National Railway (2002).

Recommendations to address the issue of operator fatigue were placed on the Board’s Most Wanted List in 1990.   In 1999, the Safety Board conducted an evaluation of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) efforts during the 1990s to address operator fatigue and, despite DOT supported research and educational programs targeting fatigue management, we found that the problem continued to be widespread and presented an unnecessary risk to the traveling public.  Recommendation R-99-2 arose from this 1999 evaluation of DOT efforts.  It asked the FRA to establish, within 2 years, scientifically based hours-of-service regulations that set limits on hours of service, provided predictable work and rest schedules, and considered circadian rhythms and human sleep and rest requirements.  A companion recommendation (Safety Recommendation I-99-1) asked that the DOT seek Congressional authority, if necessary, for the modal administrations to establish these regulations.

The laws, rules, and regulations governing this aspect of transportation safety are archaic in the railroad industry and not adequate to address the problem.  The Railroad Hours of Service Act was first enacted 100 years ago.  It permits railroad operating employees to work 11 hours 59 minutes, and return to work after only 8 hours off duty.  However, under this statutory framework, an employee who works the full 12 hours, only one more minute, would get 10 hours off duty before being permitted to return to work. And, under the law these employees are permitted to repeat that arduous work-rest cycle an unlimited number of times.  Thus, the Railroad Hours of Service Act does not take into account either rotating work schedules or the accumulated hours spent working and in limbo time. 

Regulatory Authority to Address Hours of Service

The FRA’s response to the Board concerning R-99-2 acknowledged the seriousness of the effects of fatigue on safety, but stated that FRA does not possess the authority to change Federal hours of service.  The FRA is the only modal administration within the DOT whose constituents’ hours of service are mandated by set statutory hours of service limitations (49 United States Code 21101 et seq).  FRA’s response letter further stated that DOT attempted to seek congressional authority in 1991 to bring about modernization of the Federal hours of service laws in a bill submitted to Congress.  Under the provisions of that bill, the existing hours of service laws would have been repealed and immediately adopted as regulations.  FRA would have had the authority to begin a process of consultation and rulemaking to address the important safety issues identified by both the Safety Board and FRA.  According to the FRA, the bill was not supported by rail labor and rail management, and, unfortunately, it was not enacted by the 102nd Congress.  

During the Board’s 2003 meeting to consider its Most Wanted List of Federal Recommendations, R-99-2, the hours of service recommendation, to the FRA was classified “Closed-Reconsidered” in recognition of FRA’s lack of authority to be responsive to the recommendation.  However, in the year following the 2003 Board meeting, the Safety Board considered two railroad accidents attributed to fatigue (a collision of two Union Pacific freight trains at Pacific, Missouri, and the collision and derailment of two Union Pacific freight trains at Des Plaines, Illinois); launched on the Woodley Park Metro accident here in DC; and held a public hearing on a third fatigue-related rail accident (Macdona, Texas).  This prompted the Safety Board to issue two new recommendations to FRA: R-06-14 to require railroads to use scientifically based principles when assigning work schedules, and R-06-15 to establish requirements that limit train crewmembers limbo time.  Recommendations were also issued to Union Pacific Railroad, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and United Transportation Union to use the Macdona accident as a fatigue case study.

The FRA’s October 24, 2006, response to the Board on these recent recommendations again stated that FRA lacks rulemaking authority over duty hours, which the FRA said precludes it from making use of almost a century of scientific learning on the issue of sleep-wake cycles and fatigue-induced performance failures.  The FRA lacks the statutory authority to adopt the requirements contemplated by either of these recommendations.  Any requirement that the railroads use scientifically based principles in assigning work schedules to reduce the effects of fatigue would most certainly require that they not comply with the periods established by the hours of service law, which are not based on science related to fatigue.  The FRA’s response letter further stated that “ the FRA supports efforts to address the fatigue experienced by railroad operating employees, and acknowledges that the existing hours of service is not designed to address the causes of fatigue.”

The Board applauds the FRA’s recent efforts to study the effects of fatigue in railroad operations, including the recently released Summary Report of a Validation and Calibration of a Fatigue Assessment Tool for Railroad Work Schedules.  Safety Board staff have reviewed the summary report and await receipt of the full study.  While this effort to apply lessons from studies of schedule-induced fatigue in the military and aviation to the practice of railroad work schedules is important, the bottom line is that the FRA apparently lacks an ability to actually regulate work schedules.  The FRA needs authority to regulate crewmember work scheduling practices and work limits and the Safety Board continues to support the need for change that would provide the FRA that authority.

Madame Chairwoman, this completes my statement, and I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.