The deadly derailment of a Metro-North Railroad train has reignited a decades-old debate on how to combat fatigue among locomotive engineers.
Experts said long hours, routine scenery and boredom can make an engineer lose focus and put the lives of train passengers and crew members in danger.
Union officials have said Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller dozed off during an early morning run south through the Bronx on Dec. 1, failing to slow the train from its 82-mph speed as it entered a sharp curve where the speed limit drops to 30 mph. The train -- seven passenger cars being pushed by a locomotive -- derailed, killing four people and injuring 71.
"You have to be perfect from the minute you step onto that train until the minute you step off," said David Rangel, deputy director of the Modoc Academy, an engineer-training facility in Marion, Ill.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the derailment, officials have said evidence points to fatigue -- a common factor in transportation accidents and one that some critics say has not been appropriately addressed in the railroad industry.
The 106-year-old federal Hours of Service Act dictates that engineers can work up to 11 hours and 59 minutes consecutively before requiring eight hours off. That does not account for commuting, socializing and other demands on their time. After working 12 hours or more, the law states, engineers require 10 hours off.
Michael Quinn, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Local 269, the union representing Long Island Rail Road engineers, said the law is usually interpreted to count only consecutive hours operating a train. LIRR engineers can work as many as 14 days in a row before being required to take two days off, he said.
"Engineers on the LIRR are generally given ample time to rest between shifts," Quinn said.
Critics say the regulations are outdated and don't reflect newer research on sleep requirements and natural rest patterns. The Federal Railroad Administration over the years has lobbied for increased rest requirements and noted in a February report that fatigue can increase the likelihood of a train accident caused by human error by as much as 65 percent.
"The job itself, the actual running of the train, is mostly enjoyable. But then there's also a lot of boredom," said John Balderucci, a former Metro-North engineer who retired in 2010 after 23 years. "The rule book says 'a constant, vigilant lookout ahead.' You can't daydream. You can't do anything. But the problem is that it becomes so monotonous."
Balderucci said adequate rest can be especially elusive for engineers with no seniority who alternate beween day and night shifts.
Efforts to further regulate engineer rest have faced resistance from railroad labor and trade organizations, whose workers stand to lose money if forced to work fewer hours. Both Metro-North and LIRR engineers make a top annual base salary of about $77,000 a year, not including overtime and work rule payments.
In a 2005 report, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen supported a comprehensive plan to address fatigue, but noted that "for labor, a tension exists between earning potential and fatigue from overworking."
In 2008, the Federal Railroad Administration made some changes to the Hours of Service regulations to address the fatigue issue, including requiring railroads to eliminate schedules that posed higher risks of engineer fatigue.
But Patrick Sherry, co-director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at Mississippi State University, said more could be done. He said he would like to see railroads institute "countermeasures" to sleepiness among engineers, including more opportunities to nap at work, along with educational programs on the effects of fatigue.
Brian Heikkila, a former freight and passenger locomotive engineer and trainer, said government regulations aren't a panacea for tired engineers.
"It's up to the individual to see if he is fit for duty when reporting," said Heikkila, of Plains, Mont.
The MTA has instituted several policies in recent years aimed at keeping engineers' eyes on the rails, including a ban on cellphones and electronic devices, and a requirement that an engineer's cab door remain closed while a train is operating.
Engineers also undergo physical examinations every two years, MTA officials said.
On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called on the Federal Railroad Administration to require cameras inside engineers' cabs, in part to monitor their behavior.
Quinn, the LIRR union leader, said engineers, who undergo about a year of training before starting, also take a five-day "refresher test" every other year to recertify their competence. He said he'd like to see even more engineer training. For Metro North, the recertification is every three years, said MTA spokesman Sal Arena.
Former LIRR locomotive engineer Robert Haragsim, who retired in 1992 after 25 years, said keeping focus could be a struggle, especially when working seven days a week and making the same run back and forth several times in a single shift.
"Sometimes your mind wanders a little, but because the job is repetitive, you do the same thing every day," said Haragsim, 73, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. "It's like when you're driving a car for a long time."
He added, "You don't have somebody to take the wheel after a while. Your mind does drift."