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Schumer: LIRR sleep apnea testing would have prevented crash

Sen. Chuck Schumer on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, at Penn Station called on the federal government to require LIRR engineers to have sleep apnea testing, which he said would have prevented Wednesday's train crash in Brooklyn. (Credit: Newsday / Alfonso Castillo)

The Wednesday morning LIRR train crash that injured more than 100 people at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn would not have happened if the railroad had been testing its locomotive engineers for sleep apnea, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Sunday.

At a news conference in Penn Station, Schumer called for the federal government to require all railroads, including the Long Island Rail Road, to screen train operators for obstructive sleep apnea, and to publicize which railroads do not test its engineers for the sleep disorder.

The LIRR’s sister railroad in the MTA, Metro-North, began testing its engineers for sleep apnea after a deadly December 2013 derailment in the Bronx in which federal investigators said engineer fatigue caused by the sleep disorder played a role in the accident.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said in April that it would expand testing to all its agencies, but nine months later, no program is in place at the LIRR, the busiest commuter railroad in the U.S. Schumer called that “outrageous.”

“We had the horrible tragedy at Spuyten Duyvil. And now Metro-North does test their engineers for sleep apnea. But why hasn’t the Long Island Rail Road been doing it? Why aren’t all railroads doing it? That is the question. That is unacceptable, it’s unsafe and it can’t continue,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “If the whole MTA had said, ‘We’re testing every engineer for sleep apnea before they get at the controls, we wouldn’t have had this.’ ”

Authority spokesman Aaron Donovan said safety is the “the top priority for MTA and all its agencies.”

“The MTA’s commuter rail system is the first in the nation to begin testing for sleep apnea on Metro-North and we are currently in the process of expanding it to all of the MTA agencies,” said Donovan, adding that the LIRR expects to award a sleep apnea screening contract in the coming months.

Kevin Sexton, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 269, which represents 400 Long Island Rail Road engineers, said Sunday that his union “unequivocally supports safe railroad operations for locomotive engineers and the public.”

“This organization has said, since the first discussions of sleep apnea testing, that we are prepared to meet with the LIRR and discuss any and all safety and fatigue issues, including sleep apnea testing,” Sexton said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said it’s too early in the agency’s investigation to consider a probable cause for the rush-hour accident that occurred when a train carrying about 430 people slammed into a barrier at the end of the tracks in Atlantic Terminal at more than 10 mph— twice the speed limit.

Board spokesman Peter Knudson said Sunday that, as part of the probe, investigators will “look at the 72 hours prior to the accident to determine if there were any issues that could have compromised his ability to safely operate the train.”

Schumer, who has been receiving NTSB briefings on its investigation, said Sunday that he believes sleep apnea was “very likely” the cause of Wednesday’s crash.

Schumer was among five U.S. senators to sign a letter sent Sunday to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart asking for a review of railroads’ policies on sleep apnea testing and inward-facing cameras in train cars.

An NTSB spokesman said he had not yet seen the letter. For more than 15 years, the agency has been calling for locomotive engineers to be tested for obstructive sleep apnea, which leads to train operators being fatigued and falling asleep on the job.

In March, the Federal Railroad Administration began taking early steps toward a possible new rule requiring testing. The agency has also instructed railroads to educate engineers about the dangers of fatigue.

FRA spokesman Marc Willis said that “it’s important to note that while FRA is working on a rule, the railroads have the ability to implement a sleep apnea program now.”


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