CLEVELAND, March 1 — Top BLET leaders took advantage of a two-day session on railroad safety this week to bring key safety issues for locomotive engineers and trainmen to the attention to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is the transportation industry’s primary accident investigation body.
On February 26, the NTSB conducted a hearing in connection with its on-going investigation into the June 24, 2012 high speed, head-on collision of two Union Pacific Railroad freight trains near Goodwell, Oklahoma. The accident claimed the lives of BLET Division 592 President Dan J. Hall, Division 592 Member John S. Hall and a conductor, and seriously injured a second conductor.
At this hearing, BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce participated in a panel of witnesses who testified about accidents and incidents in which human factors play a role. Pierce informed the Board about the increasing complexity of the locomotive engineer’s job because of new technologies, new regulations, and new operating requirements that force engineers to multi-task more now than ever before. He was also critical of the industry’s punitive approach to discipline.
“The fact is no one comes to work planning on running by a red signal,” he said. “And no one learns to become a better engineer by spending up to two years unemployed for passing one. Nor does the industry reduce red signal infractions by firing engineers who pass a red signal to send a message to those that have never passed one. Such messages are useless; no one passes a red signal on purpose.”
Pierce also pointed out that, at a time of legitimate transportation industry concern over distractions from personal electronic devices such as cell phones, BLET members are buried in a growing blizzard of electronic devices installed to increase productivity and monitor performance in ways that divert their vigilance from the roadway ahead.
“With so many systems to manage, today’s locomotive engineers are routinely put in situations where they are severely challenged to balance all that he or she has to do. Yet, the standard response when things go wrong is to continue to blame the worker by punishing the person, instead of fully investigating the root causes of events in this complex operating environment, then adjusting systems and procedures to reduce risk,” he said.
Pierce concluded his testimony by stating “we do not agree that any engineer should be blamed for the systemic risks created by adding layer upon layer of electronic technology without proper training and retraining, and with inadequate consideration of the complexities of the human-machine interface. The industry can do better than that. We are capable and ready to participate in that effort.”
The BLET’s Safety Task Force was in attendance as the union’s representative at the hearing. The team included National Chairman W. C. Walpert, National Coordinator C. W. Fields, and Primary Investigators S. G. Palmer and J. D. Bullard.
On February 27, the NTSB conducted a day-long forum on Positive Train Control (PTC), which focused on implementation problems and delays the railroads say they are experiencing. Among the three panels to testify before the Board was one that included BLET Vice President S. J. Bruno, who coordinated the Organization’s participation in developing a PTC regulation in 2009, after Congress mandated installation of the life-saving train control system following the tragic 2008 accident in Chatsworth, California.
Vice President Bruno echoed some of the themes raised in President Pierce’s testimony. He told the Board that “in actuality, a two-mile-long train with a DP consist in the middle is, functionally, two one-mile-long trains coupled together and operated by a single locomotive engineer.” Bruno then explained why PTC — as an overlay on top of existing signal systems — was a necessity.
“When first designed and installed, the current fixed signal systems were intended for use for single-train operations, and stopping distances were calculated on this basis, with an added margin for less than optimal braking performance. In many places that added margin is approaching or has reached its limitations for today’s train weights and DP train operations. Increased stopping distance requires increased warning distances to maintain the existing level of safety,” Bruno said.
Bruno also urged the NTSB to stand firm against some in the railroad industry who are “resisting, watering down and lobbying against implementing PTC technology.”
National President Pierce thanked the NTSB for providing a high-profile forum for the BLET’s concerns. “I want to thank Chairman Hersman, all the Board members, and the NTSB’s Technical Committees for their work this week,” Pierce said.
“We had an opportunity to state our case for this life-saving system for operating employees and the travelling public. As a union, the Brotherhood’s goal is to fight for a safe working environment for our members and to see they are able to safely go home to their families each and every time they go to work. I am hopeful that Brother Bruno and I were able to take steps toward achieving that goal,” Pierce added.
To view, download or print the testimony given by National President Pierce and Vice President Bruno, use the following links: