Amtrak Conductors Say Company Has “Worker Fatigue” Problem

Workers walk towards the site of a derailed Amtrak train. — REUTERS
May 14, 2015 at 6:04 PM ET

Investigators are still trying to find out why the engineer in Tuesday’s fatal Amtrak derailment was running his train at 106 mph, double the speed limit, heading into a particularly treacherous stretch of track in north Philadelphia.

It’s entirely possible that the engineer, Brandon Bostian, was simply being reckless, and that the cause of the crash is no more complicated than that. But in some previous crashes, worker fatigue has also played a role. According to current and former Amtrak employees with whom we spoke, Amtrak’s scheduling “experiments” for engineers and conductors–combined with staff cuts–have taken a toll.

As investigators sort through the wreckage of Amtrak 188, attention has turned to the train’s engineer, 32-year-old Bostian, whose lawyer says has no recollection of the derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.

A former Amtrak conductor who knows Bostian and considers him a friend says he is a great engineer with no reputation for pushing the limits in terms of speed. She declined to speculate whether fatigue could have been a factor in Tuesday’s wreck, but says Bostian is a great engineer.

“He’s very knowledgeable, helpful, always willing to give me a hand,” she says. “Some of the railroad guys were rough with female employees like myself, but I became friends with him because he was always so willing to help out. A very personable guy and a pleasure to work with.”

The former Amtrak conductor, who asked not to be identified, echoed concerns about worker fatigue that the labor union representing many of Amtrak’s employees raised last year. In a letter dated December 2014, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Train Men objected to Amtrak’s scheduling “experiments” that require rail workers to work longer hours with shorter breaks and inconsistent schedules.

According to the former conductor, who is in her 30s, under the new rules “you are considered ‘rested’ after eight hours.”

“So, for example, if my train arrived in D.C. at 10 p.m., they could call me at 3 a.m. to work a 6 a.m. train,” she says. “Do the math: Have I slept well? Now repeat that for six days in a row. Many times I complained that they interrupted my eight hours of sleep, but this issue is never addressed.” The employees we spoke with said it’s not uncommon to have a week that follows this pattern. While they said they felt well compensated by Amtrak, they said often the tradeoff is a grueling schedule.

We reached out to Amtrak multiple times to ask about worker fatigue, but didn’t get a response.

At this point, there’s no evidence that worker fatigue had anything do with Tuesday’s crash. But plenty of people–employees, industry analysts, politicians–have cited it as a safety concern, and it’s been a factor in some previous train crashes. A MetroNorth train derailment in December 2013 in the Bronx, New York, killed four people and injured 61 others. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation found that engineer William Rockefeller’s inconsistent schedule caused sleep apnea that made it difficult for him to adjust to the early-morning schedule he’d started just days before the wreck. In another instance, a train derailed in Ontario, Canada, after the engineer misidentified an advance signal and attempted to stop too quickly. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s report on the derailment found that the engineer had only slept for an hour and a half before he was called to start his shift at 4:45 a.m.

Until just a few years ago, there was often a second person in the engine, which created a fallback in the event of engineer fatigue. But staff cuts did away with that setup. “There was a conductor in the engine with the engineer. They worked together,” she says. “Nowadays, the engineer is made responsible in the engine by himself/herself while the conductor is on the train doing other duties.”

With just one person at the controls, if something goes wrong—if the engineer becomes incapacitated, for example—the results can be disastrous. “Even a plane has a co-pilot,” she continues.

Another conductor who currently works for Amtrak has the same general complaints about scheduling and Amtrak trains being understaffed. “You have hundreds of people’s lives in the hands of one guy who is running on little sleep and who is often switching equipment after every trip,” the conductor, who asked not to be identified, says. “It’s amazing [crashes] don’t happen more often, especially when you consider the aging infrastructure.”

As rescuers were continuing with the recovery effort after Tuesday’s crash, the U.S. House of Representatives voted not to provide Amtrak with additional funding to help rebuild aging railways and bridges and beef up staffing on commuter lines. Despite the fact that Amtrak is run as a for-profit company, it generally receives more than $1 billion a year from the federal government–and yet still has never turned a profit since its creation in 1971. In 2013, Amtrak covered only 89 percent of its operating costs through ticket sales and other revenue, according to Amtrak’s National Fact Sheet. That was actually an improvement over previous years: In 2010, the figure was 79 percent.

Without additional funding, some members of congress worry that there could be more accidents. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) issued a joint statement about the derailment, saying: “We simply cannot ignore the shrieking whistles of warning telling us:  it is long past time to upgrade our rail infrastructure and implement comprehensive railroad safety reform.”

The former conductor says reform is necessary, but she fears Bostian will be the fall guy. “I think it’s sad that tragedies like this need to happen for changes to be made. The employee always takes the fall, but there should be changes all around the board,” she says. “Maintenance, scheduling, hiring more employees, budgeting, etc. When something like this happens, everyone wants someone to blame.”

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