(Washington, D.C. – March 1, 2013)
Top Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen leaders took advantage of a rare opportunity to inform members of the National Transportation Safety Board on safety concerns in the light of continual technological additions intended mainly to increase production while decreasing the number of railroad employees necessary to operate a train.
The opportunity came during a two day series of NTSB hearings and training sessions in the nation’s capital to which the labor leaders were invited and whose safety input was requested. One of the subjects of the NTSB’s agenda was the release of the most recent findings in regard to the 2012 head-on collision near Goodwell, OK, which cost the lives of three Union Pacific employees, two of them BLET members and one of those the president of BLET Division 592 in Dalhart, TX. The NTSB found that the eastbound train passed red “stop” signals before the tragic accident.
“The fact is no one comes to work planning on running by a red signal,” remarked BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce. “And no one learns to be 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 who have never passed one. Such messages are useless; no one passes a red signal on purpose,” continued Pierce.
The BLET Chief further explained that 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,” Pierce stated.
Among the participants on three panels that testified before the NTSB during the two-day proceedings was BLET Vice President S. J. Bruno, who cast considerable suspicion upon the railroad industry’s growing use of “Distributive Power” in operating mega-trains, with radio-controlled locomotives in mid-train or at the rear of trains – or both! “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,” explained Bruno.
The BLET vice president went on to say that “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 went on to chastise rail operations and corporate management for what he called “resisting, watering down and lobbying against implementing PTC (Positive Train Control) technology,” urging the NTSB to stand firm in its fight to initiate PTC this year, if not the 2015 governmental-mandated date in the Federal Railway Safety Act. The NTSB also showed that, had the satellite-based override of lack of human action PTC technology been in place and operational, the 2012 Oklahoma Panhandle triple tragedy might well have been prevented.