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Train operators in Canada’s burgeoning freight rail industry report falling asleep at the controls and coming to work exhausted at an alarmingly high rate, according to an ongoing CBC News investigation into rail safety.
“I have had instances where I have just snapped back into reality, and kind of, for a few seconds, not really realized or recognized where I am,” one Ontario-based CN rail engineer told CBC News, recalling how he’d missed a signal at the controls of a three-kilometre-long train.
“We came around a curve looking at a stop signal. Had I not taken the necessary action at the necessary time, we would have been in trouble.
“We may have caused an incident, and we may have cost somebody their life.”
The engineer is one of more than a dozen current and retired rail workers who contacted CBC News following the Lac Megantic rail disaster. These rail workers warned that chronic exhaustion among locomotive operators is one of the biggest issues facing the industry.
Some spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of losing their jobs, and admitted to falling asleep, missing stop signals and putting lives, cargo and communities at risk.
The core of the problem, they say, goes beyond long shifts or being expected to sleep in their off-time on makeshift beds far from home.
Moreover, most freight train engineers have no firm schedules and are, instead, on-call, 24/7, never knowing when or how long to sleep.
Transportation fatigue expert Clinton Marquardt, who for the past 11 years has worked for or alongside the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) on 91 accident investigations, told CBC News the issue is too large to be ignored.
“My biggest fear,” Marquardt said, “is that we have a catastrophe like Lac Megantic that will be attributable to fatigue.”
75 per cent admit to falling asleep
The sleep issue has plagued the industry for years. In 1986, 23 people died after a CN freight train crashed into a VIA passenger train in Hinton, Alta. Investigators suspect the CN crew fell asleep, and cited scheduling practices as a major safety risk.
This article first appeared on www.cbc.ca
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