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Sleep Disorder Testing Could have Prevented Metro-North Derailment: NTSB

By Ben Fractenberg | November 19, 2014 3:39pm
 The National Transportation Safety Board recommended the MTA test "safety sensitive" employees for sleep disorders nearly a year after the deadly Metro-North derailment in The Bronx, Nov. 19, 2014. 
NTSB Recommends MTA Employees be Tested for Sleep Disorders after Metro-North Crash
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MIDTOWN — Nearly one year after the deadly Metro-North derailment in The Bronx, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that “safety-sensitive” railroad employees be tested for sleep disorders during an agency board meeting Wednesday morning.

The recommendations come after DNAinfo New York first reported in April that engineer William Rockefeller, 46, suffered from sleep apnea. Rockefeller, a 20-year veteran, dozed off early in the morning on Dec. 3, causing the train to speed 82 miles per hour into a sharp turn at Spuyten Duyvil.

The crash killed four people and injured dozens more.

“The derailment in the Bronx that took four lives could have been prevented by a requirement to screen for sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA,” said NTSB chairman Christopher Hart during the meeting.

The NTSB also recommended better training for the nation’s doctors to identify and treat sleep disorders, as well as railroad associations and unions collaborating on a “national labor agreement to address sleep disorders,” according to Hart.

Rockefeller told investigators that he felt alert when the train left Poughkeepsie at 5:45 a.m., but that he dozed off just before the crash.

The motorman had gone to sleep at about 8:30 p.m. the night before and was home most of the day before the derailment.

The federal agency had also previously recommended Metro-North adopt positive control technology, which could automatically slow or stop trains that are excessively speeding or in danger of crashing.

Another NTSB report also sited pressure on Metro-North employees to make sure trains run on time led to a “deficient safety culture.”  

The MTA is looking for a third-party medical testing and evaluation firm to conduct a pilot program to test train engineers for sleep apnea, an MTA spokeswoman said. The LIRR has also been involved in the effort, which will be presented during the MTA December board meeting. 

The pilot program is expected to last seven months. 

“Metro-North thanks the NTSB for the thoroughness of its assessment and has taken action on each of its  recommendations,” Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti said.  “We will continue to work on improvements — such as installing cameras on trains, fatigue management programs, and vastly improved track inspections."

Metro-North also announced a series of safety reforms in the spring, including speed reductions, automated track inspections and instituting positive train control.  

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer also blamed the MTA's safety culture for the derailment. 

“The recent tragedies involving Metro-North trains have demonstrated time and again that this rail line emphasized on-time performance above an honest concern for, and investment in safety for commuters and rail workers alike, and I am pleased that the NTSB’s final recommendations reflect the need to change that culture of safety,” said  Schumer in a statement.

"These expert NTSB recommendations, involving track safety, improved training and more, must be rules of the rails and will undoubtedly help prevent future tragedies.”