The engineer at the controls of an NJ Transit train that slammed into the end of a platform in Hoboken three years ago, leaving one woman dead, 100 people injured and the train station seriously damaged, has won his job back in an arbitration proceeding.
In a ruling late last month, arbitrator Erica Tener found that Thomas Gallagher, who suffered from sleep apnea, bore some responsibility for the crash. But NJ Transit had failed to follow its own procedures for screening engineers in his case. Less than three months before the crash, Gallagher had undergone a periodic medical evaluation and the railroad did not produce any evidence that its doctor had performed the specific screening procedure for sleep apnea, according to the ruling.
Not cleared for passenger trains
The decision does not put Gallagher back at the controls of passenger trains. Instead, his immediate future is limited to moving trains within NJ Transit yards, and that is dependent upon him submitting to NJ Transit’s procedures to determine he is fit for duty, including that his sleep apnea is under control. The ruling leaves it up to the mass-transit agency to decide in the future whether he can again serve as engineer of a train carrying passengers.
In addition, because of his fault in the crash, the arbitrator denied Gallagher’s bid to receive back pay, although he does retain his seniority.
Gallagher, who was represented by his union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, was not available for comment.
NJ Transit released a statement on the decision Wednesday afternoon.
“While NJ Transit opposed the reinstatement of Mr. Gallagher, we are required to comply with the legal decision made by the arbitrator. Under provisions clearly defined in that decision, NJ Transit can and will restrict his duty to non-passenger trains. In addition, the decision lays out rigorous testing and compliance that Mr. Gallagher must adhere to, including training and re-certification for operating a locomotive as well as strict medical oversight. NJ Transit will be strictly enforcing compliance in all of these areas.”
Sleep apnea probable cause
In large measure, the arbitrator followed the lead of the National Transportation Safety Board in her ruling. Federal investigators determined that the probable cause of the September 29, 2019 crash was Gallagher’s failure to stop the train due to his “undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea.” The NTSB also found that NJ Transit had failed to follow its apnea-screening guidance for engineers, and also that the Federal Railroad Administration did not require it to do so.
Tener also made note of Gallagher’s employment record with NJ Transit. “In addition, and not inconsequentially, the Claimant in this case has a long and distinguished career with the Carrier. The Claimant accepts full responsibility for his part in this accident and apologizes for his actions,” she wrote.
Riders interviewed Wednesday morning at the Hoboken Terminal, which is still undergoing repairs of structural damage from the crash, were generally positive about the arbitrator’s decision.
“I heard he was, like, a very reliable driver, he was great for many, many years,” said Tony Raymond of Nutley. “If he’s healthy enough to have his job back, why not give him the opportunity.”
Another commuter from Nutley echoed that sentiment.
“I think if his apnea is being treated, he deserves to be able to make a living,” said Joe Malle. “My concern is, why did the accident happen in the first place? How was it that the situation wasn’t diagnosed until after the fact?”
According to NJ Transit, after the Hoboken crash, it tested its 373 engineers for sleep apnea and found that 44 — almost 12 percent — required treatment.
“NJ Transit certainly recognized that they had to do more medical checking than they had been,” said Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers. “It appeared that sleep apnea was not something that rose to the top of the list when they were screening in the past. But now, I think they have a much greater appreciation of the physical limitations that can be caused by illnesses like sleep apnea.”
Lack of positive train control also cited
The NTSB, in its February, 2018 report on the Hoboken crash, also laid partial blame for the Hoboken crash on the fact that NJ Transit had not installed equipment known as positive train control or PTC, which can automatically slow a train that’s going too fast for a particular location.
As of the end of June, the agency has installed PTC on its locomotives and tracks, but the system is not yet operational as testing and training of staff continues, according to FRA data. Out of 42 railroads across the nation, NJ Transit was one of just six that was still training staffers, with the process 92.4 percent complete as of the end of June.
NJ Transit was also listed as one of nine agencies with zero PTC route miles in service; tests of the installed equipment are now underway on a section of the Morristown line.
“That’s a problem, because when people need to be trained, it takes away engineers,” said Resto of the rail passengers association. “Which means you have to cancel trains. They have to be trained, they have to be in a cab car or locomotive, which takes a piece of equipment out of service. So this crowing about PTC being installed is premature, in our view.”