Using technology to address driver fatigue in the railroad industry

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As new details of the recent train derailment in New York emerge, questions about risk management in the railroad industry keep surfacing. We won’t know for certain what the cause or causes of this unfortunate accident were until the final investigative report is released but in the meantime, media is leaning towards driver fatigue as the cause of the train derailment and have started raising questions about the possible use of various technologies to prevent accidents and save lives.

One such piece of technology in question is known as ‘positive train control’ (PTC) and works by setting permissions to onboard computers authorizing the vehicle’s safe travel route – including distances, speeds, and location. The movement of the train is then monitored and the technology will shut down or slow a train that falls outsides it’s permitted travel parameters. In the case of this recent derailment, the train would have been halted before it was able to travel into a turn at such a high speed.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) believes this PTC technology will save lives but studies show that the cost to implement are as much at $9-12 billion over the next 20 years and involves the complications of upgrading 60,000 miles of track and 20,000 locomotives with new technologies.

Richard Blumenthal is one of several New York Senators recommending that trains be equipped with audio and visual recorders to prove fatigue as a factor in collisions and catch ‘behaviour patterns’ that could be prevented in the future. While the costs of implementing this technology are said to be ‘negligible’ compared to what this recent crash will cost, it is not a technology that can prevent future tragedies, like the Bronx train derailment, from occurring.

Fatigue Science Co-Founder, Pat Byrne, has over 30 years of experience in occupational health and safety and understands the costs of these incidences quite well: “Fatigue accidents are rare but when they happen are catastrophic and, on average, cost five times the amount of non-fatigue related accidents.” he says, “With the cost of this recent New York train accident estimated to come in at hundreds of millions of dollars, the railroad industry should take another heavy look at the timing and budgeting of implementing fatigue monitoring technologies. Though, none of these technologies in question actually address the problem in identifying why the drivers are starting their shifts in a fatigued state and mitigating that in the first place.”

It is unlikely that the investigation will reveal work scheduling as a fatiguing factor, since railroads are required by federal regulation to use Fatigue Science’s FAST (Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool)  to ensure they are providing workers the opportunity to get the sleep they need. If fatigue is determined to be a factor in this accident it is more likely that the driver was not able to sleep well enough or long enough, in spite of the sleep opportunity being provided to him. These circumstances are normally due to sleep disorders and/or lifestyle issues, requiring medical intervention and sleep hygiene training as part of an organizational fatigue risk management program. Unfortunately, at this time, railroads typically do little to support workers in dealing with these severe sleep and fatigue issues – and they won’t be remedied by installing a video monitoring device in the cab of a train.

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