Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in Division 57 (Boston, Mass) are working in conjunction with researchers at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Center on a groundbreaking rail safety study to examine the issue of distraction among commuter rail locomotive engineers.
This study of distraction and attentional error is the first to apply the science of cognitive performance to the railroad workplace. The project’s goal is to identify causes and reasons for distraction and to develop strategies and countermeasures to prevent rail accidents/incidents.
Members of Division 57 are participating in this joint project with the Federal Railroad Administration, passenger rail operator Veolia, and the Volpe Center. The study is funded by a grant from FRA. In late February, BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce and a delegation of BLET members and officers toured the Volpe Center’s Cab Technology Integrated Laboratory (CTIL) in Cambridge, Mass., where they learned about the study first-hand.
Joining President Pierce in the hands-on tour were: National Secretary-Treasurer William C. Walpert; Vice President & National Legislative Representative John P. Tolman; Vice President Cole W. Davis, and several BLET staff members.
During the tour, several members of the BLET delegation became test subjects themselves. While operating the CTIL locomotive simulator, they were asked to perform numerous short-term memory tests while at the same time properly executing the safety-sensitive task at hand. The goal of the test was to gauge when too much information became a distraction and resulted in a breakdown of safety.
Recently retired BLET Division 57 members George Newman and Richard (Pie) Duggan have been collaborating with the Center, assisting in the design and construction of the testing simulations being developed for the CTIL simulator.
Additionally, there are volunteer locomotive engineers who will serve as anonymous testing subjects. BLET Division 57 President Paul Chaput and Local Chairman Gary Hobson, have visited the CTIL facility and have operated the CTIL simulator. BLET Division 57 fully supports the project and has recruited test subject locomotive engineers from the ranks of active BLET MBCR commuter rail engineers. Along with the members of Division 57, MBCR General Manager Hugh Kiley has also toured the CTIL and has given his full support and cooperation to the project. He works with Brother Chaput and Brother Hobson to facilitate the participation of MBCR engineers.
Another objective of the study is to further demonstrate the way all human beings respond to situations that involve task overload and the influence of mind wandering, which can cause them to lose their focus on the task at hand and inadvertently make mistakes that — in the rail industry — result in rule violations or accidents. Researchers hope that the lessons learned through this research will result in training that can not only benefit rail operators, but all employees involved in safety sensitive occupations. The researchers also hope that the results of the study will be educational for not only BLET locomotive engineers, but for rail management as well.
Already the preliminary portions of the study have resulted in the development of a training video that teaches locomotive engineers about attention lapses and attention-related errors. Researchers have also developed a series of presentations aimed at further educating rail management about the limits of human attention, as well as several hands-on experiential demonstrations of attention-related errors.
“This is a great example of railroad labor and management working together for the benefit of both our members and the railroads,” President Pierce said. “Instead of the railroad applying punitive discipline, as many railroads do, they are collaborating with us to help determine the root causes behind distraction related incidents. Operating crews are threatened with what can only be called situational overload on a daily basis. By working together, it is my hope that we can identify human limitations and develop strategies to create a safer industry for our members and the traveling public. This is an example of something that we need more of in the industry.”