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Train wreck linked to fatigue: Signals, switching equipment pass inspection while trains' equipment, track face scrutiny.
[June 16, 2006]

Train wreck linked to fatigue: Signals, switching equipment pass inspection while trains' equipment, track face scrutiny.


(Fresno Bee (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 16--Railroad signals and switching equipment were operating properly before two BNSF Railway freight trains collided early Wednesday in Madera County, a railroad spokeswoman said Thursday.

While not ruling out mechanical failure, the news fueled speculation that human factors -- such as employee fatigue -- may have caused the wreck that injured five people, scattered rail cars and shut down one of the state's main rail lines Wednesday.

A spokesman for the rail employees union said Thursday that crew members may have been too tired or distracted to prevent the collision.


Railroad workers can work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with schedules changing at a moment's notice, said Tim Smith, state chairman of the legislative board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Auburn.

"You don't know when to work or when to sleep," said Smith, an engineer for 34 years for Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific Railroad.

BNSF Railway spokeswoman Lena Kent would not say whether human error played a role in the crash.

A railroad safety expert said the northbound train had the right of way because it was already moving onto side tracks to allow the southbound train to pass.

The southbound train should have stopped to allow the northbound train to finish its maneuver, said William Keppen, a retired railroad engineer living in Maryland and a former consultant for BNSF.

The crews of both trains have been drug-tested, Kent said.

The collision happened near Avenue 19 and Road 26, west of the Madera Golf and Country Club, at 5:54 a.m. Wednesday, shutting down one of the state's main rail lines.

The tracks were cleared Thursday, allowing freight trains and Amtrak to resume operations.

The BNSF tracks and side tracks are used by freight trains and Amtrak. Trains are controlled by railroad signals stationed along the tracks that are similar to traffic signals -- green means go, yellow means slow down and red means stop. The train crew also has access to a dispatcher via radio.

Kent said investigators were trying to determine whether a mechanical failure aboard a train or a track failure contributed to the crash.

Two crew members who stayed on the northbound train as it collided with the southbound train remained hospitalized at University Medical Center in Fresno. They are talking, coherent and their injuries are not life-threatening, Kent said.

Three crew members who leapt from the southbound train right before impact have been treated and released.

Kent declined to identify the five railroad workers, specify their injuries or say how fast the trains were traveling before the collision.

Though the railroad released some findings, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said it's too early in the investigation to determine the official cause of the collision.

Seven experts were dispatched to the crash site to determine whether the two train crews followed the railroad's operating procedures and to inspect the locomotives, as well as the signal and train controls along the tracks, said spokesman Steve Kulm.

The federal investigators also will also conduct extensive interviews with the two crews and the BNSF dispatcher who was in control of the trains' movements, Kulm said.

Train accidents and derailments have declined nationwide, but train collisions -- major and minor -- increased from 237 in 2004 to 261 a year later, Kulm said.

There's no simple answer why this is happening, Kulm said, but one explanation could be that "the demand for freight rail service is at record levels, and the industry is currently going through a significant wave of retirements."

Smith, the rail employees union spokesman, said most collisions typically occur because of railroad equipment failure or fatigue among crew members.

After working a 12-hour shift, a crew member gets 10 hours of rest time, Smith said. Rest time, however, is affected by family obligation, meals, sleep and getting ready for work, he said.

Kent said the southbound train originated in Richmond and was headed to Barstow. The engineer had 85 hours of rest time before his shift; the conductor had 481/2; and the brakeman had 121/2 hours.

The northbound train was headed from San Bernardino to Polk near Sacramento. The engineer had 16 hours of rest time before his shift, and the conductor had 54 hours, Kent said.

Keppen said his research showed that humans play a major role in a vast majority of railroad collisions. He called it "a performance lapse" when a railroad worker fails to follow procedure.

A performance lapse could result from being on a cell phone or from a lack of sleep. Fatigue is a fact of life among railroad workers, given their long and often unpredictable work hours, Keppen said.

Kent, however, said railroad workers are compensated for their long hours and have plenty of time to rest and prepare for the next shift. "It's an accountability issue," she said.

But Keppen, who once did a fatigue study on BNSF crews, including those operating between Fresno and Bakersfield, said a crew member's rest time could be misleading.

Though the southbound train's engineer had 85 hours off, Keppen said it's likely the engineer had returned to a normal sleep pattern of being awake in the daytime and sleeping at night. That means the engineer got up in the middle of the night to begin the Richmond-to-Barstow trek, when he might have been sleepier.

Keppen speculated that the southbound train crew could have been distracted. "But by what? They were alert enough to jump off before impact?" he said. "It doesn't make sense."

The reporters can be reached at plopez@fresnobee.com, cmccarthy@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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