Rail accidents triggered by fatigue
Wednesday, May 03, 2017 by James Gorry
Due to its 24-hour nature, fatigue is a major risk in the rail industry.
The risk is recognised and as a result, many rail companies around the world are obligated to create and implement a fatigue management program to protect staff, passengers and the communities in which they travel.
Whether it’s a passenger train carrying patrons between stops along a line or a commercial rail transporting freight across the country, the role of fatigue has unfortunately made its mark on the following rail accidents.
Spuyten Duyvil derailment
The derailment resulted in four fatalities and 61 injuries. It also caused an astonishing $9 million worth of damage.
One of the telling signs that fatigue or drowsiness may have played a role in this accident is the speed at which the vehicle (in this case, the train) made contact with an obstacle or left its tracks.
The reason these types of accidents can result in more severe damage and injury is because a driver who is in a daze or suffering a micro sleep makes no conscious effort to prevent a crash.
In this particular investigation, it was noted that the passenger train entered a curve and derailed at almost three times the speed limit.
Early investigations found that Engineer William Rockefeller had fallen into a daze or “highway hypnosis” – a mental state where one’s conscious mind is drifting and focused elsewhere.
Almost a year later after the accident, the final report was released. Rockefeller’s inattention was called the most significant cause, and he had also been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Rockefeller had also struggled to adjust his sleep schedule in the weeks leading up to this early morning shift. Metro-North was faulted for neglecting to screen its drivers for potential sleep disorders.
Hinton, Alberta train crash
At 8:40am on the 8th February 1986, the collision between Canadian National’s freight train and Via Rail’s passenger train occurred.
The crash revealed serious flaws in Canadian National Railway’s employee practices and resulted in a staggering 23 deaths and 71 injuries.
The exact cause of the crash is not known however during investigations, signal problems were eliminated. Due to the death of the crew, it proved to be difficult to determine the exact human error that may have contributed. However drugs and alcohol were also ruled out.
Commissioner René P. Foisy stated in his report that the train crew “demonstrated a lack of alertness” and may have been “experiencing chronic fatigue”. Foisy also highlighted “railroader culture” which prizes itself on productivity over safety.
Alarmingly, it was speculated that drivers had not received adequate sleep the night before.
Canadian National train crash
Their train was travelling at just 13 miles per hour (around 20 kilometres per hour) when it collided into a second Canadian National train, which was travelling at 30mph (48km/h).
Sadly, the two drivers of the second train were killed. The first train’s drivers were both hospitalised with serious injuries.
Further to the injuries and loss of life, 3000 gallons of fuel were spilled, resulting in an evacuation of nearby schools and homes. The spill resulted in a cost of around $1.4 million.
The two conductors aboard the southbound Canadian National freight train had both been diagnosed with sleep apnea before the accident. Shockingly, their diagnoses were not recorded in company medical reports and their conditions were not treated prior to the accident.
An attorney who represented the families of the deceased summarises the risk we take with drowsiness and fatigue:
“People are aware this is a problem, but nobody wants to fix it until there is an accident, unfortunately,” he said.
2015 Oxnard train derailment
This early-morning incident occurred when the Metrolink train collided with a pickup truck in Oxnard, a coastal town located about 90km west of Los Angeles.
Unlike other incidents mentioned so far in this blog post, the cause of this incident was attributed to the truck driver’s negligence, not the train driver’s.
“Acute fatigue” and “unfamiliarity with the area” were listed as two reasons why the truck driver mistakenly turned onto the railroad and got stuck on the tracks. Once the truck driver realised his error, he abandoned the truck on the tracks. He left his lights flashing, but this was not enough to alert the train engineer and his student (who was driving the train) of what was ahead.
The collision occurred at 5:44am.
By the time of the accident, it was suspected the truck driver had been driving for almost 17 hours (the amount of time awake that, incidentally, has the same affect on your performance as a blood alcohol level of 0.05) and had been on duty for 24 hours.
29 people were injured and unfortunately the train engineer passed away a week after the accident due to the injuries he’d sustained. The truck driver was charged with manslaughter.
Fatigue in the rail industry
Gruelling work schedules, poor sleep management and inadequate support from employers are three key factors that contribute to fatigue.
As levels of drowsiness increase, so too does the risk of a performance failure. Unfortunately for the rail accidents listed here, this failure has led to loss of life and exorbitant costs.
While loss of life is the most impactful loss, we must also recognise the other costs of drowsiness, including:
(We dive deeper into the cost of fatigue, including equipment costs of $500,000 and beyond, in this blog post.)
Is it time you addressed the risk of fatigue in your business? Contact Optalert today.