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LIRR should expedite testing of engineers for sleep disorders, Sen. Charles Schumer says

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. speaks during a news

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Credit: AP

Sen. Charles Schumer on Friday called on the Long Island Rail Road to begin testing its locomotive engineers for sleep disorders to prevent an accident if one fell asleep at the controls.

At a Mineola news conference, Schumer (D-N.Y.) chided the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for recently adopting a pilot program on sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, for more than 400 of Metro-North Railroad engineers, but not adopting any testing policy for the LIRR.

"It shouldn't take a Long Island Rail Road crash for the MTA to begin testing and treating Long Island Rail Road engineers for sleep apnea and sleep disorders," Schumer said.

Metro-North adopted its plan under the recommendation of federal investigators after a December 2013 Bronx derailment that killed four passengers. Investigators said in that case the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was not well rested before his shift, contributing to his nodding off at the controls.

The National Transportation Safety Board last year also recommended that the LIRR adopt a sleep disorder testing policy, and it has been urging the Federal Railroad Administration for more than 10 years to force all railroads to test for sleep apnea.

In a statement, MTA spokesman Salvatore Arena said the results of the Metro-North pilot program will help the agency implement a program at the LIRR and at New York City Transit subways. The MTA awarded a seven-month contract in December to Persante Health Care Inc. for the pilot program.

"The three agencies are working together to develop the most effective sleep apnea program," Arena said.

Schumer said the MTA's "slow, piecemeal approach" is not good enough and the LIRR should immediately be included in the ongoing pilot program.

"Why can't they do them together?" Schumer asked.

Dr. Michael Weinstein, director of the Winthrop Hospital Sleep Disorders Center, said obstructive sleep apnea disorder is "extraordinarily common" among men, and causes afflicted patients to be fatigued during their waking hours.

"If the person was doing something important, like driving a car or driving a train, it could be deadly," Weinstein said. With treatment, there's no reason why a sleep apnea-afflicted engineer could not continue operating a train, he said.

LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein, in a statement, said he supported Schumer's call, saying, "When a safety issue affects one branch of the MTA, it affects all branches of the MTA and all its users."

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