In December 2013, a derailment on the Metro-North railroad line injured more than 60 passengers and killed four. The train was traveling at excessive speed as it attempted to make a tight curve on the rail line in the Bronx, New York. In a report released in October 2014 by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), it was determined that the probable cause of the accident was human error, or more succinctly, the result of undiagnosed sleep apnea.
As the accident was occurring, the train was speeding at 82 miles an hour along the curve with an enforced maximum speed of 35 miles per hour. Had the rail line installed available braking system safety equipment, the brakes would have been automatically engaged, slowing the train to a manageable speed, minimizing the potential of a collision.
In released federal documents, the commuter train engineer William Rockefeller was shown to be suffering from a severe sleeping disorder at the time of the accident. His previously undiagnosed severe obstruction sleep apnea caused him to feel “dazed” and “mesmerized” while looking straight ahead while the train was moving. Additionally, blood drawn after the accident showed traces of allergy medication containing sedating properties. Rockefeller claims he felt in a hypnotic state and was shaken from the sensation to instinctively pull the train’s emergency brake at the last moment.
Before and during the accident, the train was moving in “push mode.” This means that the locomotive was positioned at the end of the train, pushing instead of pulling the railcars forward. The engineer was operating the locomotive from the front cabin using remote controls.
To keep the train running, the engineer is required to place their foot on a “dead man pedal” applying downward pressure constantly. If this configuration disengages because the engineer dies or loses consciousness, the train will stop automatically. However, the NTSB was unable to determine if the pedal mechanism was fully engaged when the engineer fell asleep at the controls.
Rail Line Negligence When It Comes To Ensuring Operators Are Well Rested
Sadly, this is not the first accident for the second biggest computer rail line in the nation. According to the NTSB, the rail line experienced five accidents in the previous 12 months, indicating safety was not a leading concern for Metro-North. Additionally, it was concluded by the NTSB that the rail line failed in its duty to perform routine track maintenance.
It appears as though the Metro-North failed in a variety of their duties and responsibilities. Some of these include:
- Failed to develop and implement effective policies to properly screen workers and engineers suffering a sleep disorder
- Failed to properly inspect tracks visually
- Failed to maintain a replacement or repair schedule of some track parts
- Failed to install systems designed to automatically apply the train’s brakes, which might have prevented the accident
- Failed to provide adequate glazing on the train’s windows, which allowed four passengers to eject from the rail car, which led to their death
Making Changes To Protect Train Passengers In the Future
Unfortunately, it took loss of life and extensive injuries for Metro-North rail lines to develop policies to protect commuters riding their trains. Their lack of punctuality in dealing with many of the conditions on the rail line likely led to the accident involving injuries and death. After the fatal derailment, the railroad took steps to improve safety and implemented numerous changes including the installation of train cabin cameras, improved track signaling and lower speed limits.
The engineer’s medical history indicates he was never tested or diagnosed with sleeping disorder prior to the crash. While he was known to snore, he did not gasp or choke for air to the point of waking up while sleeping. Even so, records of his newly diagnosed condition indicate his sleeping cycle was disrupted up to 65 times every hour. As a result of their negligence, the rail line now screens employees for sleep apnea, a serious medical condition that causes breathing to stop involuntarily.
In addition, two weeks prior to the accident the engineer had changed working afternoon shifts to morning shifts, likely disrupting his sleep cycle. The NTSB indicates that the changes in shifts to an earlier time likely compounded his sleep disorder condition.
Nearly every passenger on the rail line suffered injuries or death in the catastrophic accident. If Metro-North had not acted negligently in various ways the collision could have likely been prevented.
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