2 Train Crashes Blamed on Engineers' Undiagnosed Sleep Disorders
By Alfonso A. Castillo
The Long Island Rail Road should have foreseen the potential for a morning rush-hour crash that was caused by an engineer's undiagnosed sleep apnea and injured more than 100 passengers at Atlantic Terminal in 2017, according to a new federal report.
The National Transportation Safety Board criticized the LIRR for not doing enough to manage the risks of "end of terminal accidents" -- despite having been involved in similar incidents in recent years. LIRR officials said there were four on the railroad since 2007. In only one of them before the Brooklyn crash at Atlantic Terminal were there injuries, LIRR officials said.
"So the probability was certainly there," NTSB railroad division chief Georgetta Gregory said. "We know it has happened, so we know it will most likely happen again."
Because the railroad was not screening engineers for sleep disorders at the time -- which was not mandatory -- and had been involved in similar crashes in recent years, it should have predicted the potential for the crash and planned for it, the NTSB determined. NTSB investigators Tuesday at a Washington, D.C., meeting discussed the findings of a joint probe of the Jan. 4, 2017, morning crash, and a similar crash in Hoboken, New Jersey, involving a NJ Transit train that killed one person three months earlier. In both incidents, locomotive engineers failed to stop their trains as they entered a terminal station -- crashing into concrete "bumping posts" at the end of the tracks.
In its report, the NTSB determined that the probable cause for the LIRR crash at Atlantic Terminal was that the train's engineer, Michael Bakalo, fell asleep due to chronic fatigue related to undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea. The NTSB said that the railroad's failure to screen engineers for the sleep disorder, and the Federal Railroad Administration's failure to require such screening, contributed to the crash -- as did the lack of any technology to stop the train beforehand.
The engineer involved in the deadly Hoboken crash on Sept. 29, 2016, also had undiagnosed sleep apnea, which contributed to that incident, the NTSB said. Since the crash, both railroads have begun screening engineers for sleep apnea.
The NTSB issued several recommendations, including that the federal government require sleep apnea testing for railroad workers, and technology to prevent crashes at terminals. It also recommended that both railroads consider similar past crashes and engineer fitness when identifying operational risks as part of their safety management plans.
In a statement, Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Aaron Donovan, said the safety of passengers, employees and the public is the agency's "highest priority."
"The MTA has an established an aggressive sleep apnea screening and treatment program for all train and bus operators and locomotive engineers in line with the NTSB's recommendations and we are moving forward with this program, even in the absence of a federal mandate," Donovan said.
The Brooklyn crash, which occurred as the train was moving at 13 mph -- more than twice the 5 mph-speed limit -- injured 108 people and caused $5.3 million in damage, according to the NTSB.
The board also recommended that federal regulators require technology to stop trains before they reach the end of their tracks. Investigators acknowledged that federally mandated positive train control technology, which is supposed to be in place at all railroads by the end of this year, may not have been effective in either crash because of its limitations in controlling train traffic at terminal and yard settings, where GPS technology may not work and where slow speeds and complex switching patterns present other technical challenges.
The Hoboken and Brooklyn stations where the crashes occurred are both exempt from positive train control requirements.
The NTSB also reiterated previous recommendations that the FRA require sleep apnea screening for all railroads. The federal government was considering implementing such a rule when it abandoned its plans last summer, reasoning that existing safety measures were enough. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said he was "mystified" by the decision.
"The traveling public deserves alert operators," Sumwalt said. "That's not too much to ask."
Also Tuesday, Amtrak was looking into why two cars on a high-speed Acela train bound for Boston came apart while traveling through Maryland. There were no injuries, Amtrak said.
"We are currently investigating the cause of the car separation, inspecting every Acela trainset, and taking any necessary actions to prevent a reoccurrence," Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said.
It was the latest in a series of safety-related incident on Amtrak in recent weeks, including three fatal train accidents since December -- two of which occurred during the last week.