NTSB blames sleep apnea and lack of PTC for NYC-area crashes in recent years

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Wreckage in the Hoboken (N.J.) Terminal shown in an image from the National Transportation Safety Board.
National Transportation Safety Board
WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board on Feb. 6 blamed two familiar culprits, obstructive sleep apnea and the absence of positive train control for “nearly identical” commuter train accidents in the New York area that killed one person and injured more than 200 others.

The first happened on Sept. 29, 2016, when NJ Transit train No. 1614 rammed into the Hoboken, N.J., terminal. NTSB staff determined the engineer was fatigued due to undiagnosed sleep apnea. On Jan. 17, 2017, a Long Island Rail Road train No. 2817 crashed into a platform at the railroad's Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn after the engineer fell asleep.

In both cases, the Federal Railroad Administration had exempted terminal trackage from positive train control plans.

“Today we'll discuss, as we've discussed so often, the role of fatigue in yet two more railroad accidents … positive train control can stop a speeding train automatically. In both accidents, the track segments were excluded from PTC requirements,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt III.

In a statement in August 2017, the NTSB expressed disappointment when the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration withdrew a proposal requiring sleep apnea testing for operators. The withdrawal was tied to a Trump administration effort to reduce regulatory burdens.

The NTSB staff determined that NJ Transit screened “safety sensitive” personnel for sleep apnea, including the engineer operating the train in the Hoboken crash. But he was not referred for further treatment. The Long Island Rail Road had not implemented sleep apnea testing.

The NTSB staff also found that end-of-track bumping posts did not provide adequate protection, the safety programs on both railroads were ineffective, and reliance on an engineer's ability to stop a train in time was not enough to protect the public.

The board adopted recommendations that call on the FRA to require passenger and commuter railroads to develop technology to stop a train before the end of track. NJ Transit and Metropolitan Transit Authority should review their hazard management plans, and include operator impairment in the plans.

“I believe these recommendations, if acted upon, have the potential to eliminate end of track collisions,” Sumwalt said. “The traveling public deserves alert operators. That is not too much to ask.”
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