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FRA report: Fatigue a train accident-causing risk railroads could reduce by changing crew scheduling practices


Human-factor errors have caused nearly 40 percent of all train accidents during the past five years, with fatigue a major factor in one out of four of those accidents. That’s one of the findings in a recently released Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) report.

FRA researchers analyzed the 30-day work schedule histories of locomotive crews preceding 1,400 train accidents and determined there’s a strong statistical correlation between workers’ estimated level of alertness and the likelihood that they would be involved in a human error-caused accident. The study shows fatigue levels associated with some worker’s schedules were equivalent to being awake for 21 hours following an eight-hour sleep period the previous night.

“At this level, train accidents consistent with fatigue, such as failing to stop for red signals, were more likely to occur,” FRA officials said in a prepared statement.

Railroads could incorporate a mathematical model for detecting the point at which the risk of fatigue becomes hazardous into a fatigue management plan and improved crew scheduling, the agency said.

“Widespread acceptance by the railroad industry of the validated findings of this fatigue report could potentially lead to fewer serious train accidents,” said FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and United Transportation Union (UTU) welcomed the findings.

“The UTU and BLET have been pressing hard for greater carrier awareness of the fatigue problem, the urgent need to ensure train and engine-service employees have more predictable schedules and adequate rest, and early and reliable notification of start times," said UTU International President Paul Thompson.

But BLET National President Don Hahs is skeptical that railroads will change crew scheduling practices.

“The fact remains that the vast majority of fatigue concerns could be addressed, if not eliminated, by taking several simple steps, including: improving ‘train line-up’ information for crews waiting to be called for work; eight-hour call for duty; defined calling windows to prevent work tour cycling; and ending … limbo time,” he said.