An excellent question.
Fatigue in the rail industry is rampant, and has been for a long time. A revamp to working conditions and calling procedures is way over due, and the only way to solve this problem. The problem is complicated, though.
Railroading, in and of itself, is a unique occupation in many ways. Primary amongst these are the endless number of variables that must be accounted for. Of course, at times, some of these variables that act as a detriment to operations, and thereby affecting employees, is unforeseen and, to some extent, unavoidable.
Prime amongst those factors that can be controlled and alleviated lies squarely on the shoulders of our nation’s carriers themselves, as evidenced by their practices of at least the last 10 or 15 years. The truth is, they refuse to maintain a work force able to move ever increasing amounts of traffic while providing operating employees sufficient time for rest, as well as personal needs.
Outside of those districts where there is to be found a rail yard, or where there is “local” or “work train” service involved, trains do not have a specific on duty time. Those working ‘pool’ freight assignments are called for service out of the freight pool engineers and trainmen. The system is simple. There is a given number of ‘runs’ in the freight pool, identified by number, such as Run #299, or whatever. A freight pool may have as many as twenty or thirty runs in it. Engineer and trainmen desiring to hold these runs a “regular jobs” do so when seniority permits.
When a pool engineer or trainman “ties up” after a trip (registers ‘off duty’) his name and run number go to the bottom of the list. The person at the top of the list (first out) will be called for duty on the next train departing the terminal for that given pool, regardless of what time that train arrives. Engineers are then used in turn, in the order in which they tied up. This is often referred to as the ‘first in, first out’ pool system. Once an employee works his way up the list for service to the first out position, a call for service can come at any time. But, at times trains are called as close as five minutes apart, so positions one, two and three can be called in rapid succession. Bottom line is, if you are ‘marked up’ (available for service) you are subject to call at any time, 24/7.
The problem inherent with this system, as work rules exist today, is that since these pool freight trains are not operated on a schedule, it is nearly impossible to have any kind of assurance as to a time frame that one may be called for service. This problem lies in a carriers seeming inability, or refusal, to give accurate ‘line ups,’ or a time frame for trains out and running approaching that terminal where crews will be changed so the train may continue on its way.
Consider this scenario, that happens all day, every day, in one terminal or another. You got home this morning at 10 AM, after having spent 12 hours on a train the night before. When you tie up, there are 8 engineers on the board ahead of you. You see the line up, and notice that there are only 4 trains out and running toward you pool location. This is good news. It can mean some time at home.
So, making the best use of the time you have, you mow the lawn and change the oil on your car, and tend to a few other necessary everyday chores. You have an early supper, and the wife and kids want to know if you can take them to the movies tonight. So, you call the crew dispatcher to get an updated line up. The crew dispatcher says, “You aren’t going to work until tommyrot. You’re still four times out, and there are only two trains out and running for your pool to cover.” Hot diggidy dog, we’re off to the show, even though your tired. You’ll get some sleep tonight. The line up says so. After enjoying the movie, you get home and are finally in the sack at 10 PM. You just fall asleep, when the phone rings. “Mr. Engineer, this is the crew dispatcher. We have you called on duty for 11:30 PM.”
“What? The line up said tomorrow morning at the earliest.” Well, there was a train that didn’t show on the line up (which there is absolutely no excuse for) and the dispatcher deadheaded three crews to point “B”. Of course the dispatcher knew he was going to have to call these deadheads hours earlier, but no one decided to put that information on the line up. You’re nailed, now with 24 hours under your belt since you last slept, and away you go, working another 12 hours to get to where you are going. By the time you get there, you have been awake for 36 hours. Do you think you may be tired? I’ll tell ya, your eyeballs will be on your cheeks. Do you think you would be working alertly by that time?
So now you have at least 10 hour rest. But, subtract a one and one half hour call, and allow for time to bathe and find an open restaurant. If you can shut your mind of on command, then you’ll be able to enjoy six hours of sleep. You go back to work, and work 12 hours going home. More chores. You call the crew dispatcher for the latest info. “Your train is out and running. Looks like you’ll go to work around 10 o’clock.” You hit the sheets.
You wake up at 11:15, wide awake and ready to go to work. “Where’s my train?” Oh. They busted the call on that train, and it never left its terminal. The line up was wrong.” So, you rattle around the house most of the night, finally get to sleep, and the phone rings.
This happens all the time. And this is ‘pool’ freight. “Extra board engineers” are in an even tougher spot. It is they who cover pool run vacancies created when the regular engineer on a run decides to take a day off. These guys tie up, sometime 15 or 18 times out, and get called every ten hours. Predicting a call is an impossibility.
What do you suppose would be the result if the airline industry used their pilot work force in this fashion? We’d be dodging falling, flaming wreckage regularly.
You are quite correct about the hypnotic effect of the rails in front of you. Hundreds are the times when my chin has bounced off my chest, waking me from a ‘micro-nap’ that I didn’t even know had happened before waking from it. Where are we? How long was I out? What signal aspect (color) are we running on? happens every day.
Caffeine is useless.
Continuing with the airline pilot analogy, extra board personnel there must protect a possible call for an eight hour period. At the expiration of that period, if not having been used, they go to an inactive list for 16 hours, before entering another eight hour window. In this fashion, they are much better able to regulate their rest time. This system needs to be implemented for railroad operating personnel as well. But, the rail carriers would spend any amount of money in lobbying efforts to prohibit our representatives in the US Senate and Congress to fight implementation of a system such as this, for it would require that they hire and train more people.
There are, however, scenarios that are out of the carriers hands that can affect the reliability of train line ups. A crew may reach their 12 work limit en route due to unforseen circumstances, requiring an addition pool engineer to be unexpectedly used. These instances are not preventable, and come under the heading of “tough luck.” That is just the nature of the beast.
But, changes to the method of calling crews for service and providing information, accurate information, is well within existing technological purview. Unless mandated, these changes will not occur.
There are electro-mechanical means in some places to help protect against engineers asleep at the wheel, but they are not in use everywhere, and not every locomotive is equipped with an ‘alerter,’ which will produce an audio and/or visual warning for the crew in the cab. The main problem here is, eyes wide open doesn't guarantee good descision making or adequate reaction times to given situations. In other words, awake doesn't necessarily mean alert.
So, the answer to your question is, operating crews ‘cope’ with fatigue by sheer will power. When derailment and/or death is the predictable outcome for inattentiveness it provides some incentive, but when your mind is ready to shut off, it’s going to. Even when staying awake by force of will, or by way of electronic means, decision making, as well as reaction time, is definitely still affected, so it is not merely a matter of whether one is awake or not. Judgements, being made one after the other by an engineer, are crucial. Misjudgement usually gets someone dead. Fatigue, on the scale of which we are speaking, produces just as much impairment as if the employee is on drugs or in a drunken stupor.
Only a Congressional mandate, altering the current Hours of Service Act provisions will rectify this exceedingly dangerous condition. And that won’t happen unless the citizens of our nation demand these changes by our representatives. This of course requires involvement in the process by these citizens.
So, the next time you’re riding Amtrak, keep your fingers crossed. That headlight coming your way may have someone behind the throttle that is getting a little rest, and doesn’t even know it....................
ADDENDUM: Hopper has hit the nail on the head. The crew SHOULD have the ability to stop the train and proceed no further. The truth is, they cannot, lest they be cited for "insubordination." The truth is, if ordered to go, you go. To do otherwise is to be removed from service for refusing a company directive.
The only way they CAN be empowered is to have a stautory right to refuse to perform service.
The wisdom in the event of a potential charge of insubordination is to "do now, submit greivence later." At the present time there is NO RECOURSE for employees who KNOW THEY ARE NOT FIT FOR SERVICE.
As far as "laying off" (removing oneself from the working list) most times when trying to do so, there is a "block" on the board. "No layoffs." Period. If a person refuses a call, they are cited for insubordination.
The carriers will NEVER change the current conditions unless FORCED to do so. That enforcement MUST come throrough the Halls of Congress.
Even if it were otherwise, who would volunteer to be the first turkey to stick his head above the flock? Would you risk your livelyhood, that supports your family?
What I am saying, straight up and fo' sho', there are engineers out there, right this minute, as you read this, day or night, who are operating in a catatonic state.
This IS the whole point. Thanks for the help MT. I couldn't have had a better ally to illustrate that point.
Richard, I hope you will let this question's resolution ride for a full seven days. Your question has served to shed daylight on a very serious situation, and I hope more people weigh in on this, particularly the rails who regularly visit this site....
Answered By: Samurai Hoghead - 4/27/2007