- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The amount of time railroad employees can work without rest is based on laws created in 1907, but the industry and Congress are struggling to move them into the 21st century.

Rail industry leaders from government agencies, unions and associations met with lawmakers yesterday to discuss the role human error plays in rail safety and potential changes to the standards that many leaders see as outdated and ineffective.

The 99-year-old measure has kept the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) from “making use of almost a century of scientific learning on the issue of sleep-wake cycles and fatigue-induced performance failures,” FRA administrator Joseph H. Boardman told the House Transportation and Infrastructure railroads subcommittee yesterday.

The hours-of-service law, last amended in 1969, limits rail workers to 12 hours of work followed by eight hours off duty, then 12 hours of work, a process that can continue perpetually, according to Mr. Boardman. With this schedule, the worker will suffer from fatigue, which will compromise his ability to perform his duties.

“The NTSB has identified fatigue as a causal or contributing factor to at least 14 major rail accidents since 1984,” Mr. Boardman said, adding that many more, less-severe accidents have been tied to human error in tired crews.

The NTSB cited a reduced amount of sleep as a factor in the Nov. 3, 2004, Metrorail accident at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station.

Human factor accounted for 38 percent of train accidents from 2001 to 2005, according to the FRA.

The federal law limits the FRA’s ability to regulate and enforce the number of hours rail employees can work. Other agencies in the Department of Transportation can regulate the number of hours workers can perform their duties.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that airline pilots may work 100 hours each month, truck drivers may work 260 hours, and large-ship personnel may work 240 hours. Railroad engineers may work 432 hours, out of the 744 hours in a month.

However, 95 percent of rail employees are on duty less that 250 hours per month, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Efforts to change the measure failed in 1994, 1998 and 1999 because of pressure from industry, government and unions.

Attempts to change the laws have failed because “the labor and business side have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are,” said Bob Chipkevich, director of the Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Employees want to work as many hours as they can and do not want to be forced to stop close to home, even if they have reached their limit or are tired, he said.

Fatigue was the most-discussed cause of human error at the hearing, as industry executives and experts cited long hours, the ability to be called for work at any time, inconsistent scheduling, overworked and undersized crews as several of the causes.

“The factors of fatigue are multiple, complex, and intertwined,” said Edward Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads. “A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.”

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