Following deadly train crashes that the National Transportation Safety Board has suggested are linked to engineers’ undiagnosed sleep apnea, New Jersey Transit train engineers have undergone mandatory sleep disorder screening. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea are a cause of concern for safety experts, who say that lack of proper sleep by the people who operate trains puts the lives of thousands of passengers at risk. Curiously, federal officials recently removed mandatory sleep apnea testing from railroads.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition in which a person’s breathing is repeatedly interrupted while asleep. This deprives the person of necessary oxygen and can cause extreme fatigue, drowsiness, and difficulty with concentration during the waking hours.
New Jersey Transit Finds 44 Engineers with Sleep Apnea
To conduct its testing, New Jersey Transit screened 373 engineers for sleep disorders. Of 373 engineers screened, 57 were pulled from duties until they could undergo a full test for sleep apnea. Thirteen of those engineers were later found to not have a sleep disorder, but 44 were found to have sleep apnea. They were pulled from service until they could receive proper treatment for their sleep disorder.
Most of the engineers diagnosed with sleep apnea have returned to work, but at least two are still off duty pending treatment.
Train engineer sleep apnea testing is not required federally for railroads and transit companies. New Jersey Transit began testing its engineers after the September 2016 crash at the Hoboken Terminal that killed one person and injured more than 100, in apparent recognition of testing’s value to passenger safety.
Engineer in Hoboken Crash Had Undiagnosed Sleep Disorder
Thomas Gallagher was the engineer operating train number 1614, which crashed in Hoboken. An investigation found that Gallagher had undiagnosed sleep apnea, and the NTSB suggested his sleep apnea may have played a role in the accident. Following the tragedy, Gallagher reportedly told officials that he had no memory of the accident, and had periods of going in and out of consciousness.
As the train approached the Hoboken Terminal, it suddenly accelerated from eight miles per hour up to 20 miles per hour, double the station’s speed limit. Because the train was moving too quickly, it was unable to stop in the designated section of the terminal and crashed into a bumper block. The force of the collision destroyed the first train car and damaged the Hoboken Terminal.
In 2016, following the crash, Gallagher undertook a sleep study and was diagnosed with sleep apnea. He had not undergone a mandatory sleep apnea test in June 2016, three months before the fatal crash.
MTA Also Screening Employees for Sleep Disorders
The MTA, also in response to the Hoboken crash, began testing its workers for sleep apnea. In September 2017, however, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota spoke out about the agency’s testing, arguing it does not go far enough to protect passengers. Under union rules, workers who fail sleep apnea screening can return to work for 90 days to enable them to obtain an official diagnosis and begin treatment.
Lhota argued the 90-day period was too long, given the effect sleep apnea has on a person’s waking hours. As of September 2017, only half the 20,000 MTA employees who were required to undergo sleep apnea testing had done so.
Critics Call for Train Engineer Sleep Apnea Testing and Positive Train Control
Two factors in the crash that critics have cited as being concerns are the engineer’s sleep apnea and the lack of positive train control (PTC). Positive train control would have automatically stopped the train as soon as the train began to speed. Hoboken Terminal is now scheduled to receive positive train control, but the safety device will be installed on the PATH lines, not on the New Jersey Transit lines.
Recently, federal officials canceled a plan to require sleep apnea screening for railroads and trucking companies, a move that angered some lawmakers and safety experts. Critics said making the train engineer sleep apnea screening voluntary would put the lives of motorists and railroad passengers at risk, increasing the chances of more tragic accidents. Officials said the move was to stimulate economic growth.
One would think that even an anti-regulation zealot would recognize the contribution to safety that would come with weeding out engineers suffering from sleep apnea. By what logic does one think it's ok to risk the lives of hundreds of passengers by allowing the locomotive to be operated by an engineer who could fall asleep on the job? Gallagher fell asleep, and people died.
“We simply cannot stand idly by and wait for the next tragic incident,” said New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. “It’s imperative that we take immediate steps to strengthen rail safety standards, and sleep apnea testing is a common-sense safety measure that could prevent crashes and save lives.”
“I blew once on my horn, and I began to ring the bell,” Gallagher told investigators following the crash. “The next thing I remember was a loud bang.”
The NTSB is expected to give more information on its findings in February 2018 at a board meeting.