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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

NTSB: Fatigued crew cause of deadly UP train crash

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart
Photo –

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined yesterday that an August 2014 collision between two Union Pacific Railroad trains in Hoxie, Ark., resulted from a fatigued engineer and conductor who were both likely asleep on one of the trains.

The crash occurred in the early morning hours of Aug. 17, 2014, when a southbound UP train failed to stop at a signal and collided with a northbound UP train that was traversing a turnout to an adjacent track. The conductor and engineer on the southbound train were killed; the conductor and engineer on the other train were seriously injured.

The southbound train did not slow or stop in response to three restrictive signals, which resulted in the collision. The northbound train crew operated their train in accordance with traffic control signals, had no indication of the impending collision with the southbound train and did not have time to apply emergency air brakes prior to the collision, according to the NTSB's abstract report.

"The southbound train conductor was likely asleep at the time of the accident due to the variability of his shift start times, which caused fatigue and the circadian desynchronization he experienced due to his operating the train in the early morning hours when he was predisposed to sleep," the report stated.

Had provisions specified in the hours of service requirements for commuter and passenger trains been applied to freight train operations, the southbound conductor would not have been allowed to work on that schedule, the NTSB determined.

Also, the southbound train's engineer was fatigued and likely asleep because of an "inadequately treated moderate sleep apnea" and operating the train so early in the morning, the report continued.

"The continued occurrence of railroad accidents attributed to fatigue caused by sleep apnea are due in part to the failure of the Federal Railroad Administration [FRA] since 2002 to respond to the hazards posed by undiagnosed or inadequately treated sleep apnea," stated the abstract report.

Also, UP's medical rules did not require the southbound train's engineer to report his condition for moderate sleep apnea or ensure that he followed his doctor's treatment recommendations.

"The lack of minimum standards for medical rules among Class I, intercity and commuter railroads poses an unnecessary risk for employees in safety-sensitive positions who are diagnosed with sleep disorders," the report added.

The NTSB also noted that the territory where the accident occurred was not equipped with positive train control (PTC).

"Had the territory been equipped with a properly functioning positive train control system, the collision would have been prevented," the report stated.

In his closing statement, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart called for stronger federal safety requirements for railroads.

"An engineer or conductor working for a freight railroad is just as subject to fatigue as one who works for a passenger or commuter railroad. The FRA's safety rules, and those of the railroads themselves, should reflect this fact," Hart said.

"Similarly, employees of railroads should be subject to fitness for duty regulations. Airplane pilots, mariners, and commercial truckers can only be certified to operate their vehicles if they demonstrate that their relevant medical conditions, including sleep disorders, do not pose safety risks. It is time to apply similar rules to our railroads," he added.

Hart concluded by calling for the railroad industry to complete implementation of PTC.

"Human operators can be fatigued, impaired, distracted, or medically unfit, and they can make errors even on their best day, when they are not fatigued, impaired, distracted, or unfit. Since human error is inevitable, this technological safety net is indispensable," said Hart. "Until PTC is implemented nationwide, we risk yet more preventable derailments, collisions, serious injuries, and deaths – as illustrated by the collision we discussed today."


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