Engineers please for action on fatigue

Canadian railways make it hard for engineers to stay awake

BLE Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from The Globe and Mail. The article was originally published on June 12, 2001.

As train derailments go, this was a good one.

There were no injuries and no release of hazardous chemicals or waste when an eastbound Canadian National train collided with the side of a westbound CN train at 4:42 a.m. near Basque, B.C.

Investigators searched for a physical cause for the October 1998, accident, but found none. Instead, they concluded that the accident likely occurred when the locomotive engineer on the eastbound train fell into a brief "microsleep" after being awake for 20 of the previous 21 hours.

It could have been a lot worse. A similar accident near Topeka, Kan., in 1997, killed the train's engineer, caused more than $5-million (U.S.) in damage and forced more than 1,400 residents from their homes.

Investigators concluded that the dead engineer probably fell asleep shortly before the collision, after being awake for more than 18 hours.

Fatigue is a huge safety hazard plaguing the transportation industry, whether it is pilots napping in the cockpit, truckers nodding off at the wheel, or engineers asleep at the switch.

Under pressure to travel long distances under monotonous conditions, workers say they are flirting with disaster.

"I struggle. Everybody struggles. I have fallen asleep for a few seconds," said David Boyko, a Winnipeg engineer who has been asking Ottawa to pay more attention to issues of fatigue on the rails. "You can't ignore this. It's a time bomb."

There are regulations in Canada and the United States capping the number of hours railway workers can be on duty and prescribing rest periods. Most shifts can't be longer than 12 hours in Canada.

But in both Basque and Topeka, the engineers were working within the limits of these rules when they appear to have fallen asleep.

George Hucker worked on the rails for about 20 years before leaving to work at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Like most engineers, he said, he sometimes lost the battle to stay awake. Mr. Hucker is now the union's point man on the issue of fatigue.

"It is the number one issue for people who are operating heavy machinery like locomotive engineers," he said.

The image of a freight train engineer falling asleep at the switch seems somehow less threatening than thoughts of pilots dozing in the cockpit or truckers falling asleep at the wheel.

But consider this. A train hitting a car at a railway crossing packs the same punch as a car hitting a soft-drink can. In such encounters, the cars are usually destroyed while the trains can escape unscratched.

In 1999, there were 109 fatalities involving trains in Canada. Of these, the vast majority involved collisions with vehicles (28 deaths) and trespassers (63 deaths). There were also seven passenger deaths and three dead employees.

While most railway deaths are unrelated to fatigue, it did play a role in one of the worst train accidents in Canadian history. Twenty-three people died after a Canadian National Railway Co. freight train collided with a Via Rail train near Hinton, Alta., in 1986.

Although the crew had rested before taking control of the train, they did not get enough sleep, investigators concluded. The engineer had slept, at most, for 3 hours; the trainman, five hours; the conductor, four hours.

The accident heightened awareness of fatigue and resulted in new duty day limits that have been adopted across the industry.

Shifts are generally limited to 12 hours and engineers can't work more than 18 hours in a 24-hour period. Under rare exceptions, a shift can be up to 16 hours long. After working a shift of at least 10 hours, railway engineers can't be called back for duty until they have had at least eight hours off.

The Hinton disaster also led to the installation of an emergency button that must be pushed every minute or two. If not, automatic brakes are engaged and an alarm sounds.

The button helps deal with one of the great ironies in transportation work. That is, the easier the job gets, the harder it is to stay awake.

When the railways were first built across Canada in the late 1800s, railway work included hand-shovelling coal and operating the locomotive to pick up and drop off cars at various locations. Those tasks, which demanded attention and maintained alertness, are no longer part of the job.

Engineers said 1995 changes to the union contract at Canadian Pacific Railway Co. have made it even harder to stay awake. These changes allow the firm to deadhead workers to another location by cab, without giving them a chance to book rest when they arrive.

CPR spokesman Ian La Couvée said that while there is always room for improvement, the railway believes its policies are safe.

But he said the issue of fatigue isn't something the company can address on its own. He said workers also have a responsibility to make sure they're well-rested.

Some U.S. railways have policies in place for controlled napping, which allow tired engineers to pull the train off the mainline to nap.

While Canadian railways don't allow controlled napping in the trains, they have set up napping facilities at some locations where engineers can rest before a shift if a train is delayed.

But Mr. Boyko said it's still possible for a railway engineer to drive a 7,200-tonne train after being awake for up to 24 hours.

That's because freight trains don't typically run on schedules. When engineers go on call, they never really know when their trains will leave. The railways put the lineups on recorded messages, but these are always subject to change.

"You can't anticipate every potential disruption. That's where the prenapping comes in. When there's a delay, that employee can take advantage of that option to make sure that their alertness is there," CN spokesman Mark Hallman said.

Dr. Barry Prentice, director of the University of Manitoba's Transport Institute, said the random, unscheduled hours that railways demand of their employees are a challenge to the body's circadian clock. "If you have a very disruptive sleep pattern, then you're asking for trouble in terms of fatigue and people falling asleep at the switch," he said.

In the accident at Basque, the engineer of the eastbound train called in to check the lineup at 9 a.m. and learned that he probably wouldn't be up for duty until late that night or early the next morning. As a result, he planned to sleep in the early evening.

But at 12:30, he learned that his train would leave at about 6:30 p.m. and was only able to catch an hour of sleep before reporting for duty.

Mike Brown, who died in the Topeka collision, checked the recorded lineup when he woke in the morning and found that his train wasn't scheduled to leave until 5 p.m. As usual, the lineup changed during the day and Mr. Brown's train didn't leave until 12 hours after he got out of bed.

"This was a common occurrence. He never knew when he would leave, how long he would be gone, or how long he would be home either," Mr. Brown's widow told investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The last time I called that recording, it was again inaccurate. It said Mike was still on duty. That was 8:30 a.m. July 2, 1997, approximately two hours after Mike was pronounced dead."


One of the lead locomotives in the July 2, 1997 crash that took the life of BLE member Mike Brown. The NTSB concluded that fatigue played a role in the fatality. (BLE Safety Task Force file photo)


© 2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers