In part reacting to the recent fatal train wreck on Metro-North Railroad, NJ Transit announced on April 8 that they would spend half a million dollars on an outside consultant to review NJT’s safety practices, according to media reports. The railroad also plans a 17-member internal committee to monitor safety. Investigations of Metro-North’s safety practices after the wreck yielded multiple criticisms of Metro-North, including assertions that Metro-North lacked a “safety culture” and placed on-time performance ahead of safety. NJ Transit has had a good record on train operations safety; a head-on collision of two trains in 1996 on NJT caused the death of two locomotive engineers and one passenger and led to installation of advanced safety systems on a number of NJT’s rail lines. That accident was eventually attributed to color blindness in one engineer; advanced train control systems might have prevented his train from passing the red signal that he apparently failed to perceive.
After 4 passengers died in the Metro-North wreck on December 1, suspicion rapidly focused on the engineer after it became apparent that he either dozed off or was in some sort of “highway hypnosis” state before the crash—but does that put him at fault, or is he just human? According to reporting online by Murray Weiss on the Huffington Post (Dec. 16), investigators have yet to turn up any evidence that the engineer committed any crime, even if he dozed off; it turns out, surprise! falling asleep is not a crime. So far, it appears that he was home all day the day before the accident, went to bed at 8:30 p.m. the night before his early-morning job shift began, got a good night’s sleep, and was alert when he went on duty. Drug tests are not complete, but investigators don’t expect to find anything there, either.
A major U.S.A. rail passenger wreck in California years ago led to major changes in future rail safety, and was caused by the engineer’s using a cell phone instead of watching the track. In the Metro-North wreck, however, investigators have determined that there was no cell phone use; in fact, the engineer’s cell phone was turned off. The engineer is a volunteer firefighter in his home town and reportedly devastated by the accident; he has cooperated fully with the investigation. He has an unblemished, 11-year record in running trains. Summing up, a law enforcement source said that “falling asleep, by itself, is fundamentally not a crime, not even for a motorman driving a train. There was nothing mitigating here. He was not drunk, on the phone, or out partying the night before, and he went to sleep at a reasonable hour.”
If the engineer is not at fault, who is? Attention is likely to focus instead on management and operating procedures. Human failure is always a possibility in any endeavour. At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of those managing human resources to develop systems to mitigate risk from all sources, even including people falling asleep on the job. It’s easy to say “he’s at fault, the rules say he can’t fall asleep,” but people are people, and people are known to fall asleep. Management can hardly say that this is a new concept. to them.
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Rail safety has greatly improved in recent decades, but the fatal Metro-North derailment on December 1 has brought back memories of past train wrecks in New Jersey, as recounted by Matt Flegenheimer in the Star-Ledger (Dec. 2). Perhaps the worst was way back in 1958, when 48 commuters perished as a Jersey Central Railroad train plunged from the now-long-gone drawbridge over Newark Bay, plunging 2 locomotives and 2 cars into the murky waters. Not mentioned in the article was the fatal derailment in the same era of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Broker” express to the Jersey Shore, which occurred at Woodbridge on a low-speed bypass while a new bridge was constructed for the then-under-construction New Jersey Turnpike.
More recently, in February, 1996, two NJ Transit commuter trains collided head-on at a junction in the Jersey Meadows, killing both engineers and a passenger. The accident was attributed to one engineer’s inability to perceive a stop signal because of diabetic eye disease. The junction no longer exists after realignment of rail lines in the area in connection with construction of the Secaucus Junction transfer station, yet the incident prompted modernization of NJT’s safety system with widespread in-cab signals and automatic controls ensuring that trains on most lines operate at safe speeds and separation from other trains. Later in 1996, an Amtrak train derailed at the busy Portal drawbridge over the Hackensack River and ended up in the swamps after sideswiping a train going the other way; that accident was attributed to a defect in mechanical safety mechanisms that gave the engineer a false “green light” when the rails were in fact not properly aligned at the drawbridge. The history of rail safety has always been that once an accident occurs, new rules are written to try to avoid a recurrence.
Read the complete article at http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/12/train_derailments_have_drastically_declined_but_danger_always_there.html
Despite NJ Transit and Amtrak efforts, deaths of pedestrians on passenger-rail trackage in New Jersey continue to increase, according to reporting by Mark Mueller in the Star-Ledger (August 28). In 2012, 22 such deaths occurred; so far this year, 23 deaths have taken place, and if the carnage continues at the current pace 2013 will be the highest in history, eclipsing the peak of 34 in 2010. A peak this summer—7 people died in an 18-day span beginning July 31—contributed to the total. Explanations vary, including the convenience of tracks as a shortcut and the effectiveness of trains as a method of suicide. Railroads generally classify anyone on the tracks as a “trespasser”, which tends to put the responsibility for accidents solely on the individual. This is similar to the railroads’ “Operation Lifesaver” campaign against grade-crossing accidents nationwide, which emphasizes motorist responsibility but avoids mentioning any need for improved grade-crossing gates and other protection, which would cost railroads money. However, in New Jersey there has been some investment in deterring pedestrians from entering upon tracks, beyond advertising campaigns (One public service announcement bluntly proclaims, “You’re Dead.”) In Garfield, the scene of more fatalities than any other New Jersey community, fencing has been erected to deter “trespassing”, and cameras now watch over Amtrak tracks in Hamilton Township, the site of several apparent suicides involving Amtrak high-speed trains. However, in other countries, railroad rights-of-way are often much more secure; in Great Britain, for example, it is standard practice to fence off all rail lines, to the point that traditionally trains there do not use headlights, there being no need to warn anyone on the tracks.