By Curtis Tate
The Record (New Jersey)
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board took the Trump administration to task Tuesday for killing a proposed rule to require train engineers and truck drivers to be screened for a sleeping disorder.
That disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, was found to be a factor in a fatal September 2016 NJ Transit crash at Hoboken Terminal, as well as a January 2017 Long Island Rail Road Crash in Brooklyn.
Experts testified that the NTSB had investigated five other train crashes since 2001 where sleep apnea was a cause.
Chairman Robert Sumwalt said he was “mystified” why the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration withdrew the proposed requirement in August.
“I’m extremely disturbed that FRA has withdrawn the sleep apnea screening proposal,” Sumwalt said. “It’s unacceptable.”
The NTSB presented its findings and recommendations Tuesday on the Hoboken crash, bringing the board’s 15-month investigation to a close. One person was killed and more than 100 others were injured in the Sept. 29, 2016, crash.
The board determined that the Hoboken crash was caused by engineer Thomas Gallagher’s failure to stop the train before it collided with an end-of-track barrier. It determined he was incapacitated by undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea, a sleeping disorder that causes fatigue.
The board found that NJ Transit failed to account for both the risk of the collision with the track barrier and Gallagher’s medical condition.
NTSB medical expert Nicholas Webster testified that Gallagher had annual physical examinations, and that one in 2013 indicated that he exhibited risk factors for sleep apnea, but was not referred for further evaluation.
Webster said that sleep apnea screening forms were either missing or incomplete for three subsequent physical exams of Gallagher.
“There were multiple opportunities to screen him,” Webster testified.
In the intervening years, Webster noted that Gallagher had gained 90 pounds, further increasing his risk for sleep apnea. He was diagnosed and treated for the disorder only after the crash.
Webster further testified that the Hoboken train’s conductor and brakeman exhibited risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea, but could not say whether they had the disorder, because NJ Transit’s physicians never referred them for additional testing.
“We felt like their program, overall, was not effective,” Sumwalt said of NJ Transit’s approach to sleep apnea screening prior to the Hoboken crash.
While NJ Transit and LIRR both have improved their process for screening and testing safety critical employees for sleep apnea, the Trump administration in August reversed an Obama administration proposal to make the testing mandatory.
As for concerns about cost, Webster said it’s simple to screen employees to show whether they’re at risk, and that treatment improves their quality of life and job performance.
“The traveling public deserves alert operators,” Sumwalt said. “That’s not too much to ask.”