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Sleeping Burlington Train Operators Highlight Fatigue

U.S. investigators’ conclusion that both operators of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train fell asleep before a fatal wreck last year revived concerns that led to rules restricting hours of airline pilots and truck drivers.

“Once again, this investigation draws attention to the dangers of human fatigue,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement yesterday. “The human body is not designed to work irregular schedules, especially during the circadian trough, when our bodies are at their lowest alertness.”

Both operators of a coal train that struck the back of another Burlington Northern train that was stopped near Red Oak, Iowa, on April 17, 2011, fell asleep and missed signals to slow and stop, the safety board found. The tracks didn’t have crash-avoidance technology that U.S. railroads must install by 2015 under a U.S. rule, it said.

Suann Lundsberg, a Burlington Northern spokeswoman, didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment.

About one in four pilots and rail workers surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation reported that sleepiness affects their job performance at least once a week, compared with one in six non-transportation workers, according to a report issued last month.

Pilots, Truckers

The Burlington Northern conductor and engineer were both at high risk for sleep apnea and the company didn’t screen for common ailments, Hersman said in an interview today in McLean, Virginia. They were working unpredictable schedules involving day and night shifts, making it difficult to stay rested, Hersman said

“We want to be awake during the day, and we want to sleep at night,” Hersman said.

The U.S. introduced pilot-scheduling regulations designed to limit fatigue that take effect in December 2013, following an investigation into a 2009 crash at Pinnacle Airline Corp.’s Colgan Air unit. The rules reduce hours passenger-airline pilots can work late at night, after crossing numerous time zones or making numerous landings and takeoffs.

The Department of Transportation backed off proposed rules in December that would have reduced the maximum driving day for truckers to 10 hours, from 11, while requiring a 34-hour rest period each week that would require drivers to be off two consecutive nights. The trucking industry has challenged the rule in court while safety groups and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union criticized the decision not to reduce the workday.

Positive Train Control

Congress required the railroad accident-avoidance technology, known as positive train control, following a 2008 head-on crash between a Union Pacific Corp. freight train and a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train. Manufacturers of the technology include Wabtec Corp.

The technology can automatically stop a train before it hits another. Railroads have sought an extension to the 2015 U.S.-mandated deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration has estimated it would cost railroads about $12 billion over 20 years to install and maintain the systems, making it the most expensive U.S. mandate ever on the railroad industry, according to the American Association of Railroads, a Washington-based trade group.

Positive train control would help prevent fatalities and injuries in cases like the Burlington Northern crash, Hersman said in the interview.

“Always, we want the engineer to be in control of the train,” Hersman said. “But when something happens -- medical, fatigue, distraction, whatever -- there’s a technological backup.”

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