NEWARK, N.J. – U.S. Senators Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate mass transit subcommittee, and Cory Booker (both D-N.J.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees passenger rail safety, today joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in calling upon the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to conduct a comprehensive review of all passenger railroads’ implementation of sleep apnea testing and inward facing cameras.
“What’s even more concerning than the slow progress railroads are making, is an apparent growing trend of railroads pledging to implement sleep apnea testing and inward cameras only after a derailment has occurred on their system,” the senators wrote in a letter to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. “Passenger railroads should be able to heed the lessons of other passenger railroads, and each of them should be taking steps to implement these two important provisions as quickly as possible.”
The letter was signed by Sens. Menendez, Booker, Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Operator fatigue and sleep apnea have been cited in the investigation of the September New Jersey Transit (NJT) crash that killed one and injured more than 100 at the Hoboken Terminal. Last week, the operator of a Long Island Railroad (LIRR) train that derailed in Brooklyn, N.Y. claimed he had no recollection of the crash.
The NTSB has long recommended sleep apnea testing, comprehensive fatigue risk management programs, and inward facing cameras. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the key regulatory agency on this issue, also took the important step of issuing safety advisories on both of these issues.
Sens. Menendez, Booker and Schumer wrote to the head of the FRA in November urging the agency to adopt stricter operator fatigue guidelines and hold railroads accountable for failures to prevent future tragedies.
In October, Sens. Menendez and Booker called on U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx to investigate safety concerns at NJT to determine whether there are more systemic problems at the agency that may impair safety following reports indicating large numbers of safety violations at NJT and increased federal inspections of the agency.
Sens. Menendez and Booker led a delegation letter in October requesting federal funding to advance NJT’s implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology that automatically controls the speed of the train in the event of operator impairment.
Full text of the letter follows:
January 8, 2017
The Honorable Christopher Hart
National Transportation Safety Board
490 L'Enfant Plaza SW
Washington, DC 20024
Dear Chairman Hart,
We write to request that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) undertake a comprehensive safety review of passenger railroads efforts to implement critical safety initiatives, specifically: sleep apnea testing and inward facing cameras. As our nation’s premier transportation safety agency, charged with conducting objective, independent, and fair investigations we’d ask that you use that authority to immediately begin a comprehensive review of this issue. For years the NTSB has recommended sleep apnea testing, comprehensive fatigue risk management programs, and inward facing cameras and recently the Federal Railroad Administration, the key regulatory agency on this issue, took the important step of issuing Safety Advisories on both of these issues as well.
Yet despite these strong recommendations from both NTSB and FRA, there continue to be reports and investigations that reveal that sleep apnea is at least a partial cause of a number of rail accidents. Furthermore, even when sleep is not identified as a cause, often times the public and safety regulators are left with more questions than answers because of a lack of inward facing cameras in cabs. In an attempt to address this issue as quickly as possible, we’d urge you to take a deeper, industry wide, look at this issue. Following that review, we’d ask that you provide both Congress and the public with a comprehensive report on the extent to which each passenger rail system is implementing these important recommendations.
As you are aware, sleep apnea was a factor in the December 2013 Spuyten Duyvil derailment in which 4 lives were lost and 61 passengers were injured. Sleep apnea also likely played a role in the recent derailment of a New Jersey Transit train at the Hoboken Terminal that killed 1 person and injured 114. In addition to those two incidents, there are a number of other accidents, including the May 2008 derailment of an MBTA train in Newton, MA that have been at least partially linked to sleep apnea. In fact, nearly 20 percent of the major investigations completed by NTSB between 2001 and 2012 identified fatigue issues as a probable cause.
In addition to these clearer cases, there are also a number of incidents that have gone unexplained. For example, the engineer involved in the deadly derailment of Amtrak Train 188 was distracted in some manner, but because there were no inward facing cameras in the cab we’ll likely never know if sleep, radio communications, or some other form of distraction played a role. Similarly, something clearly went wrong in the cab of the recent Long Island Railroad derailment at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. However, in this case, just like in the Amtrak derailment, the engineer involved said they simply did not remember what happened. To help address issues like these, inward facing cameras can be a powerful tool that can shed a clearer light on the circumstances in the train cab just prior to a crash.
While we are aware that you’re supportive of both of these safety initiatives, we remain concerned about railroads unacceptably slow progress at implementing these recommendations. Recently the FRA issued safety advisories on both of these issues, and that was an important step, but we’ve continued to hear reports of very little progress being made by railroads in actually implementing these initiatives. While we understand the challenges involved and respect the need to implement these programs in a way that does not unduly harm the men and women who work for our rail systems, we still believe adamantly that something must be done. What’s even more concerning than the slow progress railroads are making, is an apparent growing trend of railroads pledging to implement sleep apnea testing and inward cameras only after a derailment has occurred on their system. Passenger railroads should be able to heed the lessons of other passenger railroads, and each of them should be taking steps to implement these two important provisions as quickly as possible.
The NTSB has a long history of strong and independent safety advocacy. In that light, we ask that as you examine this Long Island Railroad derailment you broaden your scope. We strongly urge you to not look at this derailment just as an isolated incident, but rather to take a thorough examination of all passenger railroad systems and make publically available to extent to which they’ve put in place inward facing cameras and robust sleep apnea testing programs.
October 27, 2020