A train engineer suffering from a severe sleep disorder, and a mass-transit agency that was lax in screening for the condition, were among the key findings released yesterday by federal investigators as they wrapped up a lengthy review of New Jersey Transit’s fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal in 2016.
The National Transportation Safety Board also made a number of recommendations as it closed the Hoboken accident investigation, and the probe of a 2017 Long Island Rail Road train crash in Brooklyn where the condition of sleep apnea was also found to be a key factor. They include calling for hazard-management policy revisions, and for the use of safety technology that can stop a train before it reaches the end of its tracks.
NJ Transit has already stepped up its sleep-apnea screening program and made other safety-related changes at terminals like Hoboken in the wake of the September 29, 2016 accident. The agency has also been working to install Positive Train Control safety technology that can stop trains to prevent a crash. A statement from NJ Transit yesterday said the agency is “keenly focused on safety and forward progress.”
The latest NTSB findings brought new attention to a decision made by President Donald Trump’s administration last year that reversed federal sleep-apnea screening regulations for train engineers as part of a broader effort to streamline government rules and regulations. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is among a group of senators that has introduced federal legislation in response to that decision to codify the screening requirements originally implemented by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Yesterday Booker said the NTSB’s findings underscore “just how shortsighted and reckless the Trump Administration’s decision was to reverse the rule requiring sleep apnea testing and treatment.”
Booker: ‘…cannot stand idly by’
“The safety of commuters in New Jersey and across our nation must remain a top priority,” Booker said. “We simply cannot stand idly by and wait for the next tragic incident.”
The Hoboken crash occurred just before 8:40 a.m., when train 1614 on the Pascack Valley line failed to stop inside the terminal as it arrived on track 5. The train’s speed was recorded to be 21 mph when it made contact with a bumping post inside the terminal, according to the NTSB’s initial findings which were released last year. The crash killed one person standing on a nearby platform, and it injured 110 passengers and crewmembers.
The findings released by the NTSB yesterday determined the probable cause of the accident was “the engineer’s fatigue resulting from his undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea.”
“Contributing to the accident was New Jersey Transit’s failure to follow its internal obstructive sleep apnea screening guidance and refer at-risk safety-sensitive personnel for definitive obstructive sleep apnea testing and treatment,” the NTSB said.
NJ Transit’s incomplete records
The agency had previously released documents indicating that the train’s engineer, Thomas Gallagher, had experienced a 90-pound weight gain over the previous five years. And while excess weight is a risk factor for sleep apnea, NJ Transit records from Gallagher’s July 2016 occupational-medical exam did not list his weight at all. His most recent required sleep-apnea form could also not be located. Gallagher was eventually diagnosed with severe sleep apnea in the wake of the crash, according to the NTSB.
As the one-year anniversary of the train accident was approaching last year, NJ Transit officials announced the agency had undertaken a comprehensive sleep-apnea screening initiative, with all 370 NJ Transit engineers at the time having either already undergone screenings or been scheduled to be screened. Officials also said the agency was upgrading “bumper blocks” at Hoboken Terminal and several other stations with similar setups to improve overall safety.
In response to the findings released yesterday, NJ Transit pointed to those steps and others it has taken since the crash, including the installation of inward and outward facing cameras in locomotives and cab cars, and speed reductions implemented at Hoboken and Atlantic City terminals.
“We participated in and cooperated fully with the NTSB’s investigation and are pleased that the NTSB acknowledged our aggressive sleep apnea screening protocol that mandates all safety sensitive employees who screen positive be immediately pulled from duty and will only be reinstated in their craft if they get the appropriate medical certification,” the statement said.
Gov. Murphy concerned about NJT
“We look forward to receiving the final NTSB report, and we will reserve further comment until we have had a chance to thoroughly review these findings,” the statement went on to say.
Still, improving NJ Transit’s safety and performance has been a key concern for Gov. Phil Murphy since he took office last month, with the new governor linking the health of the state’s mass-transit system to his broader goals to improve the state economy. Murphy has ordered up a full-scale audit of the agency and he has selected an experienced transportation specialist to serve as its new executive director.
State lawmakers have also introduced a comprehensive NJ Transit reform bill that would make a number of operational and oversight changes. They include an expansion of the agency’s board of directors to give regular commuters and transportation advocates more influence.
It remains to be seen whether more federal lawmakers will join with Booker and his co-sponsors of the bill that would reverse the Trump administration’s August 2016 decision to relax sleep-apnea screening regulations. The move came as part of a broader initiative aimed at rolling back government red tape in the name of economic growth and job creation. But yesterday, NTSB staff highlighted a total of six rail accidents that have occurred since 2011 — including the incidents in Hoboken and Brooklyn — where sleep apnea was a factor. NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt noted that his agency has already listed efforts to reduce fatigue-related accidents among its most important safety priorities.
“Once more, these accidents remind us why,” Sumwalt said. “The traveling public deserves alert operators, and that’s not too much to ask.”