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Pierce: PTC, two-person crews will help make rail industry safer

(The following is a statement from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce regarding the National Transportation Safety Board’s findings into the crash of Amtrak train 188. A synopsis of the NTSB’s report is here: http://www.ble-t.org/pr/pdf/DCA15MR010_Abstract.pdf.)

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, May 19 — On May 17, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its findings regarding the catastrophic 2015 wreck of Amtrak train 188 in Philadelphia. Two key safety issues of importance to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) were addressed by NTSB.

First, NTSB concluded that the locomotive engineer became disoriented as to his location while managing multiple tasks due to distraction caused by an emergency situation involving a train on an adjacent track that had become disabled after being struck by a projectile. Second, NTSB found that if a functioning Positive Train Control (PTC) system had been installed on the route traversed by train 188 the accident would have been prevented; such a system has since been installed at the location where the tragedy occurred.

Task overload and distraction have been issues of grave concern for the BLET and its members for many years. A key part of our concern is that terms like “the loss of situational awareness” attempt to place blame on the locomotive engineer, without considering that any human being can be given too many tasks at any given time, resulting in task overload.

In an effort to bring attention to this problem, the BLET petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in February of 2016 for an emergency order that would immediately prohibit the railroad-mandated use of certain types of non-vital fuel management locomotive technologies that require the engineers to divert their attention from observing the road ahead in order to monitor these systems. Evidence from the field continues to show that the mandated use of such technologies creates unsafe distractions for locomotive engineers and poses an unnecessary risk to train crews and the public. In light of today’s NTSB’s findings we renew our request to FRA for this emergency order.

The BLET also concurs in NTSB’s finding regarding PTC. We would be remiss, however, if we did not also clearly state that Amtrak’s decision-making in phasing in life-saving safety redundancy was constrained by decades of inadequate funding by Congress. Therefore, we also renew our long-standing call for full funding for the nation’s passenger railroad.

One month after the tragedy of May 12, 2015, I was called upon to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives regarding rail safety. I will reiterate what I told members of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee: Positive Train Control will help mitigate accidents, but it should not be used to replace crew members who work inside the cab of America’s locomotives. Indeed, if a second engineer as necessitated in many areas of Amtrak had been present to assist the engineer of train 188 in managing the multiple tasks confronting him, there would have been no accident.

Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured on the fateful day of May 12, 2015. Our thoughts and prayers are still with the families and victims. Without question, the accident would not have occurred if a combination of PTC and two-person train crews were in use. BLET pledges to continue to fight for both so that the rail industry becomes a safer place for all rail workers and the traveling public. BLET also renews its request that the nation’s rail carriers stop mandating the use of non-vital and unproven technologies that could diminish rail safety by creating further task overload.

Thursday, May 19, 2016
bentley@ble-t.org

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