Healthy Living

Sleep Apnea and Engineers: Is It Safe to Travel by Train?

Sleep Apnea and Engineers: Is It Safe to Travel by Train?

In 2016 and 2017, just 13 weeks apart, sleep apnea was the direct cause of two commuter railroad accidents. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, sleep deprivation caused engineer fatigue that resulted in poor judgment decisions, injuries, deaths, and millions of dollars in damages.

One of the accidents in January 2017 occurred when a Long Island Rail Road commuter train entered the Atlantic Terminal Station in Brooklyn New York but failed to stop in time. The train crashed into a small building just beyond the end of the track, and the accident injured 108 people and caused over $5.3 million in damages.

In September 2016, a New Jersey Transit train loaded with passengers during the morning rush hour entered the Hoboken station, failed to stop, went over a bumping post at the end of the track and only stopped after striking a wall in the terminal. According to the NTSB, one woman on the platform at the end of the track died because of the falling debris from the crash. Over 110 other people were injured.

Investigations into the accidents found that both disasters happened because of engineers who failed to control their trains.  And, further investigation found that both engineers had obstructive sleep apnea.

In another fatal train accident, the NTSB reported the probable cause of the derailment of a Metro-North Passenger train in the Bronx, New York on December 1, 2013, was the direct result of the engineer suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. The engineer fell asleep and allowed his train to travel at speeds of 82 mph on a curve that posted a speed limit of 30 mph.

The engineer was alone in the cab, and the locomotive was at the end of the train. Because of the excessive speed, all seven cars and the locomotive derailed. Four passengers died, and 59 people, including the engineer, had injuries that required hospitalization.

In an interview, the engineer described himself as feeling confused as he rounded the curve at the time of the derailment. Further investigation found that the emergency braking system had not been started until after the train cars began to derail. Before the accident, the engineer was not aware of his condition at all because he wasn't screened for sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea has been the culprit in several other train accidents. In 2013, in Chaffee, MO a freight train failed to stop at a signal. As a result, it struck another freight train and caused the collapse of a highway overpass.

In Red Oak, IA in 2011, a freight train flew past a stop signal and hit a stopped rail maintenance train.  This accident caused thousands of dollars in damages. In an examination after the accident, the engineer was diagnosed with sleep apnea.

The list can go on and on about several other accidents that have occurred as a direct result of untreated sleep apnea. Of course, this isn't just with engineers. Sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders, have caused bus and car accidents. Even some pilots have sleep apnea and do not even know it.

Should Americans be worried about their safety while taking the train? Read on to learn how some transit organizations are being proactive.