Texting to death

I must admit, this is something I'll never be able to understand.

Not that I claim perfection, mind you. I have more than my share of problems!

It's just that the whole idea of piloting a vehicle while distracted is so illogical, I feel it should rate as proof of insanity. And for an Engineer to place himself in such a situation is totally beyond the pale!

An N.T.S.B. report was released on the 21st of this month, and I found it to be even more depressing and frustrating than usual.

According to the Board, Engineer Robert M. Sanchez, while operating Metrolink commuter train 111 through Chatsworth, California, on Friday the 12th of September, 2008, caused a crash which took the lives of 25 people - 24 innocent passengers along with himself - and seriously injured 28 more. 73 others sustained minor injuries, and millions of dollars of equipment and infrastructure was damaged or destroyed.

After accepting responsibility for the safe operation of a locomotive (you know, those real big pieces of machinery that power the trains which transport things like human beings and volatile chemicals?), Sanchez decided to use his cell phone. In the cab. While on duty.

He chose to send and receive a variety of text messages - 43 of them, in fact - along with four personal calls. In the cab. While on duty.

The final text message was completed 22 seconds before impact. TWENTY TWO SECONDS!

It gets worse. The Conductor of UP train LOF65-12, the Leesdale Local (with which Metrolink 111 collided), was also using his cell phone (in the cab, while on duty) AND "had likely used marijuana within 3 to 11 hours of the accident" (according to the report)...although the N.T.S.B. judged these were not militating factors in this specific situation.

The Dispatcher had set up a meet between the two trains. The signal at C.P. Topanga was red. Sanchez failed to properly respond, since his text messaging activities during this time "compromised his ability to observe and appropriately respond to the stop signal" (per the N.T.S.B.). In fact, Sanchez was apparently so oblivious to the situation that he never even reacted to it!

I'm not a big fan of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In my fantasy world, I've always hoped we'd see someone at the D.O.T.'s helm who actually knew something about trains, rather than primarily existing as a political appointee.

Still, his initiatives to rein in the use of all electronic devices while operating moving vehicles - including automobiles - has my unqualified support. Certainly, I wish people would do the right thing even without a law in place! But, drivers have been known to change pull-over sweaters, make coleslaw and engage in all sorts of sexual activity while on the freeway, so I refuse to quibble.

The N.T.S.B.'s specific recommendations include the application of Positive Train Control (already on its way) and the use of both outward- AND INWARD-facing cameras to monitor cab activity. Strong opposition to cab cameras has already been forthcoming from the B.L.E.T., and it remains to be seen if such technology would actually improve operational safety.

In the meantime, wouldn't it be nice to think we'd never again bear witness to an incident where someone caused the death of others and brought reproach upon our entire industry simply because he failed to take safety seriously?

Of course, we will have to. Human nature makes it inevitable. Perhaps, though, we'll be spared the scene of carnage which can result from an Engineer who, instead of concentrating upon the proper operation of his locomotive, spends his time communicating with friends over the telephone.

In the cab. While on duty.

P.S. Effective today, it is now illegal for commercial truck and bus drivers to "text" while on the job.



  • Well stated, Garl.  Are you certain that it is illegal to text while on the job as of today?  As I read the DOT news release, the ban is imposed by an executive order, complete with fine for violation.  I don't think it can be "illegal" until Congress passes a law to make it so.  Administratively, the practice can be banned, and a fine imposed.  As for cameras, this looks a bit like Big Brother, don't you think?  Outward facing cameras won't do a whole lot of good and probably no harm, either.  Inward facing cameras ay show a napping engineer, a texting engineer, or some stupid practice.  But how many train crews violate rules so blatantly?  This seems to be a bit like blasting a fly with a howitzer; overkill.  With some 20,000 locomotives in the U.S. rail fleet, what's the benefit-cost ratio of mandating cameras focused on the engineer's stand?  We already know that Congress mandated PTC when it passed the RSIA only a couple of weeks after Chatfield in a knee-jerk reaction (is there anything other than knee-jerk reaction from Congress ever?) and now the railroads are facing a $6 - $10 billion (yes, that's a "b") in unfunded mandate for something that even FRA says won't have a positive pay-out.  It should be interesting to see the reaction of the chemical company shippers when the cost of PTC, or a large portion of it, is tacked onto rates.  After all, they're the ones producing and shipping TIH.  As for BLET, it has an obligation to protect its members and its contracts.

  • Larry,

    You're absolutely right about the new rules which became effective today. The administrative branch can't legislate, huh?!

    The idea of inward-facing cameras really bothers me, too. "Big Brother" describes my feelings very well.

    Insofar as the outward-facing cameras go, I've hoped for a long time now that a near-universal application of such technology might help railroads protect themselves in the aftermath of grade crossing incidents.

    I'm also solidly in your camp concerning unfunded mandates and knee-jerk reactions.

    As always, your comments are appreciated.


  • I was particularly drawn back by the NTSB report that the engineer was offering to let one of his cyber friends get in the cab and operate that evening.  YIKES!

  • I don't think that "Big Brother" really applies here.

    "Big Brother" monitored people when they were engaged in their personal activities. Winston Smith had to stand in front of the camera and frisk himself when in his own home; that's "Big Brother."

    It's the right of any employer to monitor its employees' activities and make sure that they are doing their job properly when on the clock.  Since a Road Foreman of Engines can't be in every locomotive cab, that's what the inward-facing cameras would do.

    Of course the BLET will fight the cameras.  The T&E employees have a right to expect the union to do so; that's what they pay for in their dues.  I hope that they lose, though.

  • You've got it just right, DaveB.  Just as unions negotiated for "lonesome pay" back when the carriers were after smaller crew agreements, I would expect BLET - and UTU on some properties - to negotiate the conditions under which inward-facing cameras will be utilized.  This would include conditions and definitions of when discipline can be administered, and perhaps a pay sweetener for those who must operate with a camera trained on them.  Like you, I would hope this doesn't become another arbitrary.  There should not be a need for a camera, not as long as there are two in the cab (freight railroads).  It used to said that airline pilots didn't need any special monitoring because they were the first ones at the scene of an accident. The same goes for engineers.

  • One thing worth considering: some monitoring systems are sealed, write-over recorders that track the last so many hours of operation, and then re-use the media. That means they can only see you picking your nose the day before, not all the way back to day one.  Part of the reason why flight crew accept recorders so readily is if anybody else sees them, you either have much bigger worries, or your survivors do.  What scares people is generic nosing, or being in a giant, perpetual time and motion study; re-writing systems kill both birds with one stone.

  • Right, Anmccaff.  The best system, though, is a culture of safe operations.  Accidents and casualties involve more than just the occupants of the locomotive.  Consider the two track workers killed on Washington's Metro just yesterday when a backing hi-rail (the Washington Post, which once had one of the best transportation journalists, called it a "high rail vehicle," not understanding the highway/rail nature of the beast) ran them down.  Washington apparently has not done a good job of maintenance on equipment as the train that crashed, killing 9 including the operator and injuring many had run right through an automatic train-stop system.  We can't have monitors for every worker, but some of the Class 1s could teach commuter operators a thing or two about a safety culture.

  • Nice little writeup DaveB

    No matter what the accident/crash all the fault should lie with the engineer (and splitting hairs) the engineer is license where the conductor is not, and so what if the conductor is under the influence he's not licensed he's not in control of the operation of the train, the engineer is.

    And the unfortunate part is that the only reporting being done is by the NTSB, whose accident reporting  leaves much to be desired, (they have their own deficencies) Just as the Fra and it's leadership, but not in LaHood but in Szabo.

    On my perfect railroad the carrier needs to count on it TE&y employees with cameras looking into the cab, but because the Carriers' pick their own fight then it's every union employees effort to rebuke such actions.

    And as far as whether or not the conductors should be tested the same way engineers' are for alcohol and drug use the answer should be no, until conductors are license and have a stake in the physical operation of the train conductors should be under "red block" protection, and not randomized or otherwise tested the way a licensed operator ( you notice I didn't say professional locomotive engineer because that's a misnomer when the vast majority of loco eng are simply trained apes that manipulate controls) is tested.

    It's the last job in the world where with less than a high school diploma you can earn six figures annually for unskilled labor.

  • RuleGmeister: You wouldn't happen to be a member of UTU would you?  Certification is primarily a vehicle for justifying higher pay for those who are certified.  I thought you were doing just fine when arguing that the engineer should be held accountable because he/she is in charge of the train.  It was when you got off into a rant calling for conductor certification that you revealed your prejudices.

  • If he was a conductor would he really get on a train with a inebriated engineer?  Or would he get the RFE involved or some other rail official.  And hopefully it wouldn't be because "I'm UTU and he's BLE" but because it's the right/safe thing to do.

    I think it takes some skill to successfully navigate a train without it breaking in two (or 3 or more), going in a ditch, running people over or generally being a threat to the general public.

    How about 6000 ton intermodal train snaking up and down and around curves through mountain territory?  Or the 18000 ton coal trains through WY and NE?  Someone's gotta be at the throttle in control of these things or we're all in trouble.  Nevermind the education either.

    How many structure or bridge folks really have any education about structures or bridges yet they are welding, hanging drywall, doing electrical work and railroad buildings aren't caving in, falling apart, or catching fire.

    I'm sure an engineer could make a statement about the education and skill level of a person that calls signals, or has to occasionally get out and change a knuckle when the "high school dropout" breaks the train in two.  


  • What employers do not require drug testing ?

    According to RuleGmiester, it's okay to work with drugged up workers, I sure hope & pray this is not the case.

    And yes , it takes skill & training to operate a locomotive leading a train. As a former MOW employee (now supplier service) a would hope BOTH persons in the cab are aware of their responsibilities, (not only to their families) but to fellow workers & the general public as a whole.

    His remarks seem to be from a bitter employee, who needs help.

  • In fairness to RuleGmeister, I don't think he was saying it's safe to work with a drunk or drugged engineer.  I took that as sarcasm on his part.  As for who doesn't require drug tests, the answer is many employers; it depends on the industry.  For railroads, it is required on a random basis and after an accident.  As I commented yeterday, it sure seems that RuleGmeister is a UTU member advocating conducter certification so they can demand more money, the way the engineers have.

  • I hope LarryKaufmann's comment is correct, where-in  rulegmiester does not advocate an intoxicated employee    in ANY department,or their service providers,to allow such behavior.

    As for the UTU advocating conducter certification, I do not feel qualified to comment.

  • I don't know what technical aspects the conductor brings to the table versus the engineer.  Not being sarcastic but calling signals, filling out paperwork, understanding the freight that's loaded on your train and making sure it's placed properly, occasional knuckle change out on the main, and being "in charge" of the train itself.  Engineer has to memorize every inch of his railroad for grades, curves, grade crossings public and private, train handling and then all of that goes into decisions on braking and accelerating a rolling heavy chunk of steel.  

    Just seems like more would be on the mind of the driver than the passenger.  My kids don't have to be certified to ride in the car with me.

  • Bttf you are right, your kids don't have to be certified to ride in the car with you, but they don't get tested while u are dui.

    And I kinda' agree w/ RuleG guy. I think it's more of if I as a conductor am not licensed, and we (the hogger) and I as a conductor are involved in a violation of the rules, and/or crash,and/or derail...etc. And add the fact that the conductor is not licensed then that leaves the entire burden of the mishap on the Locomotive Engineer (sarcastic or not) and the conductor should not be held responcible for anything ather than riding along, the conductor does not have physical control of the train.

    Larry, I don't think anything was mentioned about pay raises or more money  or union involment, so I think we could rule that out.

    And maybe RuleG is a bit disgruntled, but hardly a basket case, it seems to me it was more of an observation with a possible remedy as opposed to an out and out attack on anyone or anything.

    By the way (sarcasism implied) what does the conductor carry in his lantern?

    The locomotive engineers' brain...ha..ha!