Drowsiness and fatigue in the rail industry

Did you know human error, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), accounts for the majority of rail accidents? Of these accidents, the NTSB estimates up to half are due to fatigue.

Types of rail

What are rail companies transporting? To help find out that answer, we can segment the rail industry into two main categories: commercial rail and passenger rail.

Commercial rail

Commercial rail services transport a variety of goods and cargo cross-country. Freight trains, container trains, and bulk trains all move commercial goods from one point to another. Rail is a core piece of national logistic services.

Passenger rail

Passenger trains travel between stations allowing people to embark and disembark. These can be both long distance networks between major cities, or local networks like your city’s public transport.

Dangerous goods

Many commercial rail companies need to transport dangerous goods. Regulations can vary state-by-state, however most states and territories within a country have their own regulations regarding dangerous goods. A rail company may require certifications and consignment notes to confirm it can transport dangerous goods.

Dangerous goods can include:


  • Chemicals
  • Fuel
  • Oil
  • Gases
  • Other flammable liquids



Both types of train services rely on competent drivers who get goods and people where they need to be, safely, efficiently, and on time.

Rail workers schedules and rosters

Employee rosters are determined by each individual rail company, but there has been some recent developments where large companies all over the world aimed to reduce worker hours. Here a few examples where driver schedules and rosters have been analysed and consequently amended.

1. Aurizon is Australia’s largest rail freight company. A recent dispute between the company and its workers resulted in a reduction from a 168-hour work month to 160 hours. From 2018, it’s expected that cycle will further drop to 152 hours a month, or 38 hours a week.

2. In the UK, rail drivers are protection by the Working time Regulations 1998. The regulations dictate that an employee cannot work more than 48 hours in a week.

3. The US Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration has a regulation which recognises that employee work schedules must meet fatigue management requirements, must honour consecutive-days limitations, and recognises the difference between shifts worked during daylight hours and night-time hours.

    State and federal regulations vary, however most will have required rest hours between shifts. Freight train drivers and those who travel long distances often have more unpredictable schedules and inconsistent hours.


The source of train driver fatigue

For many years, Charles Czeisler PhD, Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School has been researching the effects of sleep deprivation on industry. Last year he co-published a paper outlining a case for addressing operator fatigue by stating, “research studies, polls, and accident investigations indicate that many Americans drive a motor vehicle or operate an aircraft, train or marine vessel while drowsy, putting themselves and others at risk for error and accident.”

Some rail companies have been reducing worker hours to combat these alarming statistics. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is also making moves to screen all bus, train, and subway operators for sleep apnea and although this will be costly to test more than 20,000 drivers, conductors, and engineers over the next five years, in light of recent accidents, the idea is likely to receive widespread approval.

Fatigue in the rail industry doesn’t just stem from long working hours or shifts worked against your body’s natural circadian rhythm. There are also two other sources. The following are the three most prevalent sources of fatigue.


Problems at home could be anything from ongoing issues with family members resulting in affected sleep to a noisy neighbour who kept you awake the night before your shift. One-off or ongoing incidents that occur at home – either on the night before a shift or for several nights before a shift – mean the risks and outcomes of drowsiness can be seen the next day, during that shift.


Excessive working hours, inflexible rosters, and inadequate sleep between shifts can all mean that an incident of drowsiness can be attributed to an individual’s working conditions.

An unpredictable schedule means train crews could be called up earlier than their planned shift, while 24-hour operations require a roster of train drivers rotating across all hours of the day and night.

Poor health

Undiagnosed sleep conditions are a major culprit of drowsiness and fatigue.

Sleep apnoea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome are three of the most common. The following stats help illustrate the prevalence of these three core sleep disorders. You might be surprised to learn that:

    • ☞ 40 million Americans suffer from long-term sleep disorders (a further 20 million experience occasional sleep problems, too)
    • ☞ Cases of sleep apnoea are increasing in Australia as the obesity epidemic rises
    • ☞ It’s estimated that more that 2.5 million people in the UK have undiagnosed sleep apnoea
    • ☞ More than 25% of Indians dismiss sleep disorders as “old-age problems” and therefore do not seek treatment for them
    • ☞ An estimated 40% of Canadians will experience sleep disorders at some point in their lives

What can the rail industry do? Fatigue management planning

According to the US Federal Railroad Administration, there’s a “strong scientific rationale for evaluating employee work schedules to address worker fatigue”.

While 24-hour operations cannot necessarily be eliminated, the foundations of safer 24-hour operations lie within accurate and comprehensive fatigue management planning. Various components of the plan are the responsibility of both the employer (and company) and the employee.

The employer

The employer and company must create, instil and maintain a safety management system that describes the procedure for identifying and subsequently managing employee fatigue. The policies and procedures implemented by a company and employer are based not only on operational schedules, but also education and training.

In the past, fatigue has not been quantifiable. Even you yourself cannot accurately determine how tired you are, regardless of how fatigued you feel or how focussed you think you are.

Through Optalert’s technology, not only can you put a quantifiable number on drowsiness, but you can also use data collected through the technology from your professional drivers to review and improve your existing fatigue management plan and 24-hour rostering.

Employee education is also a core responsibility of the employer.

The employee

A fatigue management plan from a company’s point of view can prepare employees for the safest and most optimum shift times, but it is each individual employee’s responsibility to ensure they get appropriate rest between shifts. Good quality sleep is necessary to re-fuel the body and prepare for an upcoming shift.

Developing a fatigue management plan is not simple. It is time consuming and often becomes layered and complex. This blog post looks at several important considerations when developing or analysing a fatigue management plan.

    Do you work in the rail industry or manage employees that drive passenger and commercial trains?

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