The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has officially linked two train crashes to undiagnosed sleep apnea in the engineers. The combined crashes were responsible for one death and more than 200 injuries and have raised concerns about recent movements by the US government to eliminate sleep apnea testing in train engineers and truck drivers.
Two Train Crashes Caused One Death, Hundreds of Injuries
The first accident addressed by the NTSB was the Hoboken, New Jersey, train crash in September 2016. That crash killed a 34-year-old woman and injured another 100 people. The Hoboken crash happened around 8:45 a.m. as train #1614 crashed into the Hoboken terminal after approaching the station too quickly.
According to the NTSB, the New Jersey Transit train’s brakes were working properly but the train accelerated from 8 miles per hour 38 seconds before the crash—within the speed limit—to 20 miles per hour at the moment it crashed into the station at double the speed limit.
In 2016, New Jersey Transit engineer Thomas Gallagher took a sleep study and was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The engineer reportedly gained 90 pounds in the five years before the train crash and did not undergo a required sleep apnea test in July 2016. The engineer had no memory of the accident, but told investigators he remembered looking at his watch, checking the speedometer, and ringing the bell just before the train crashed.
“The next thing I remember was a loud bang,” Gallagher told investigators. “I was getting hit with dust and dirt. I was thrown about the cab. I hit my head, the back of my head, I presume on the wall behind me. And then I had a period where I was going in and out of consciousness.”
Meanwhile, the Long Island Rail Road train crash in Brooklyn in January 2017 was also blamed on undiagnosed sleep apnea. That accident occurred around 8:30 a.m. as the train pulled into Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and crashed at the end of the platform.
The NTSB found that LIRR engineer Michael Bakalo also had undiagnosed sleep apnea. Like Gallagher, Bakalo had no memory of the crash, telling investigators he remembered approaching the Atlantic Terminal and then remembered being thrown from his seat.
“At that point, I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Bakalo said. “I remember being thrown from the seat because I was into the dashboard area, and just, you know, screaming and smoke, and people were laying on the floor in front of me.”
A hearing into both crashes will be held on February 6, 2018.
Sleep Apnea a Serious Train Safety Concern
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which a person experiences one or more pauses in their breathing during sleep. These breathing pauses can last anywhere from seconds to minutes and can severely disrupt a person’s sleep, meaning the quality of their sleep is poor. This poor sleep can result in excessive daytime fatigue, including severe drowsiness, irritability, and falling asleep.
The implications of sleep apnea for train engineers and, by extension, the passengers on those trains are staggering. In addition to the Hoboken and Long Island train crashes, other links to train crashes and sleep apnea have been found, including the December 1, 2013, crash of Metro-North Railroad passenger train 8808, which derailed, killing four passengers.
In March 2016, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration announced the proposed sleep apnea testing, the agencies noted sleep apnea that was not sufficiently treated could cause unintended sleep episodes, attention deficits, concentration issues, and memory problems which would reduce a person’s capacity to respond to safety issues.
“Thus, [obstructive sleep apnea] is a critical safety issue that can affect operations in all modes of travel in the transportation industry,” the agencies noted.
Federal Regulators Eliminate Mandatory Sleep Apnea Testing
In August, the U.S. government announced it was scrapping plans to enact mandatory sleep apnea testing for train engineers and truck drivers. The move came as the government argued individual companies should decide whether to test their employees. The NTSB’s report on the Long Island Rail Road crash and the Hoboken crash once again raises concerns about the move to eliminate sleep apnea screening.
Train Safety Critics Respond to Agencies’ Move
“These revelations underscore just how shortsighted and reckless the Trump Administration’s recent decision was to roll back common sense steps to keep commuters, train operators, and truck drivers safe,” said US 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.”
When the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said they were scrapping the proposed regulations, safety critics denounced the decision, saying millions of lives would be put at risk by the move. The U.S. government, however, has put the focus on cutting federal regulations, hoping the move will stimulate economic growth.
As critics point out, the move to stimulate economic growth could come at a terrible cost for train passengers. Some railroads have implemented sleep apnea testing of their own, but without a federal mandate requiring such screening, many railroads are unlikely to do so, putting millions of rail passengers at risk for a terrible accident.
While it is important to pursue testing for sleep apnea for those who operate our trains, planes and buses, it is also vital to keep in the forefront of the public discussion the need for the last, and perhaps most critical, line of defense for rail passenger safety: positive train control. This proven system prevents the derailment or crash even if the engineer falls asleep or is otherwise disabled or inattentive by automatically slowing or stopping the train before tragedy strikes.