Fatal Hoboken Train Crash 1 Year On: Questions Remain Despite New NTSB Data

John Reitmeyer | September 22, 2017 | Transportation
Train engineer can’t remember last few seconds before crash, was severe sleep apnea the culprit?

First car of NJ Transit train wrecked in Hoboken Terminal crash, where engineer was riding
Federal transportation officials yesterday released detailed new information about last year’s fatal New Jersey Transit train accident at Hoboken Terminal, including reports showing the train’s engineer had no recollection of the final seconds before the crash and was later diagnosed with severe sleep apnea.

The reports, interviews, and other records made public by the National Transportation Safety Board just days before the one-year anniversary of the accident also indicated the 48-year-old engineer had passed a routine occupational-medical exam several months before the crash, but his weight wasn’t recorded at the time, and a required sleep-apnea screening form was also “not located.”

The federal agency stopped short of declaring sleep apnea as the official cause of the accident in the reports, and the investigation remains ongoing. But the new information brings new attention to the sleeping disorder, which can cause excessive sleepiness, headaches, and attention problems, particularly in the wake of a decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to eliminate new federal sleep-apnea screening regulations.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-Newark) said yesterday he’s now planning to introduce new legislation “in the coming days” to expand federal sleep-apnea testing requirements.

Sleep-apnea screening

NJ Transit officials, meanwhile, said they are also in the midst of a sweeping sleep-apnea screening initiative, with 350 of the agency’s 370 engineers already having undergone screenings, and the remaining screenings expected to be completed by the end of this month. The agency said it is also upgrading “bumper blocks” at Hoboken Terminal and several other stations with similar equipment to improve overall safety.

“The steps we’ve taken so far are moving us in the right direction and we continually raise the bar higher each and every day,” said Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director. “Safety is a demand that I will not compromise or negotiate on.”

The crash at the Hoboken Terminal occurred last year on September 29, just before 8:40 a.m. as train 1614 on the Pascack Valley line failed to stop inside the terminal as it arrived on track 5. A recording device indicated the train was going 21 mph when it made contact with a bumping post. The crash killed one person standing on a nearby platform, and it injured 110 passengers and crewmembers. The terminal itself was also damaged as a result of the impact and has been undergoing repairs.

Taking close look at NJT

The accident occurred as Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democratic legislative leaders, were locked in a bitter dispute over how to renew the state Transportation Trust Fund, which is used to cover capital investment in roads, bridges, and rail infrastructure throughout the state. They struck a deal to reauthorize the TTF soon after the crash, but lawmakers have been holding a series of legislative hearings over the past year to scrutinize NJ Transit’s finances, safety regulations, and other aspects of its service and infrastructure. The next hearing is scheduled to be held on Monday.

With Christie now due to leave office early next year under term limits established in the state constitution, NJ Transit has also become a key issue in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Engineer interviewed

Among the new information released by the NTSB yesterday was a transcript of an early October 2016 interview that investigators conducted with the engineer of the train that was involved in the crash. In the interview, engineer Thomas Gallagher described overcrowding conditions on the train that morning, something he chalked up to it being one car short of the normal length. There were also two speed restrictions on the way down from Spring Valley, NY, where the trip originated, and the train was six minutes behind schedule as it pulled into Hoboken Terminal, said Gallagher, a NJ Transit engineer since 2000.

“We were just coming under the train shed, and I looked at my watch to see if we had made up any time from Secaucus,” Gallagher said. “I looked at my watch. We were still six minutes down. I looked up at my speedometer. We were doing 10 mph as we were going under the train shed.”

“I blew my horn once, and I began to ring the bell,” he said. “The next thing I remember was a loud bang. I was getting hit with dust and dirt. I was thrown back in the cab, I hit my head, the back of my head.”

Gallagher also described a period after the crash where he was “going in and out of consciousness,” and he remembered the words of a colleague saying, “Don’t you die on me.” He said he also remembers being urged by a fireman to shut off the train, and that he initially was unable to remember his last name when asked by an emergency-medical technician. He was later treated and released at a nearby hospital, where he said televisions were turned off, and that his questions about whether “everybody is alive” went unanswered.

Putting on the pounds

In addition to the interview with Gallagher, a medical report was also released showing Gallagher had experienced a “90-pound weight gain” in the past five years — excess weight is a risk factor for sleep apnea. But records from a July 2016 occupational-medical exam show his weight “was not recorded,” and the most recent required sleep-apnea form “was not located.” The NTSB report also said Gallagher met agency criteria for a sleep study, but referrals are up to a physician’s discretion, and there was “no evidence he was ever referred.”

The Trump administration announced last month that it was pulling back a new regulatory effort set in motion during the tenure of President Barack Obama to require sleep-apnea screenings for train engineers and truck drivers, saying the specifics of those protocols should instead be left up to railroads and trucking companies.

Booker, the U.S. senator from New Jersey, said the report on the Hoboken crash, and a recent Long Island Rail Road train accident with similar circumstances, underscore “just how shortsighted and reckless the Trump administration’s recent decision was.” The legislation he’s planning to introduce would “expand sleep apnea testing and treatment requirements in order to protect operators and commuters from another preventable tragedy,” Booker said.

Santoro, the NJ Transit leader, said in addition to screening its engineers for sleep apnea, the agency is also screening more than 1,000 train conductors. The speed limits entering its stations in Hoboken, Atlantic City, Princeton, and the Meadowlands have also been reduced from 10 mph to 5 mph, and a new initiative that requires a conductor to ride in the front cab of trains, along with the engineer, when entering several stations has also been implemented.

“As we approach the one-year anniversary of the tragic incident at Hoboken Terminal, and while the cause has not been identified, NJ Transit continues taking immediate actions to better protect our customers, our employees and the public,” Santoro said.