NJ Transit didn’t screen engineer for sleep apnea before Hoboken crash, records show

Submitted by New Jersey Transit Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

Medical records indicate the NJ Transit engineer involved in last September’s fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal was not evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea during an examination two months before the accident, as the commuter agency’s own guidelines required.

The 48-year-old engineer, Thomas Gallagher, was subsequently diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea and treated, according to documents released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The nearly 1,100 pages of documents the NTSB made public Thursday give clues about what may have led to the Sept. 29, 2016, crash, but offer no conclusion on its most likely cause. One person was killed and more than 100 others were injured.

The documents examine several factors in detail, from the engineer’s undiagnosed sleep apnea to the ability of 109-year-old bumping posts to absorb crash forces to the absence of positive train control, a collision avoidance system Congress required in 2008.

The NTSB has scheduled a hearing in Washington in February to address the probable cause of the crash, along with a Long Island Rail Road incident in January of this year at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, another case in which a train crashed into a bumping post. That train’s engineer also had sleep apnea.

Last month, the Trump administration withdrew a proposed requirement for sleep apnea screening for locomotive engineers and truck drivers.

In a statement Thursday, NJ Transit said all 370 of its engineers will have been screened for sleep apnea by the end of this month and that nearly a third of its conductors had been evaluated for the disorder.

The agency instituted a policy in April of removing any employee exhibiting signs of fatigue from safety-sensitive positions until they can provide medical documentation.

Locomotive recorder data show train 1614, a four-car local that originated in Spring Valley, N.Y., on NJ Transit’s Pascack Valley Line, was going 21 mph as it neared the bumping post at the end of the track at Hoboken, where the maximum speed is 10 mph.

Gallagher told NTSB investigators in two interviews that he didn’t remember speeding up the train or applying the emergency brake as the train crashed through the barrier.

Rather, Gallagher described his approach to the Hoboken as routine. He said the train was running six minutes late, but he was adhering to the 10-mph speed limit and sounded the horn and bell as required. Gallagher was alone in the train’s cab.

“That is clear in my mind,” he told NTSB investigators on Oct. 1, according to an interview transcript. “I looked at my watch, 6 minutes down. Looked up, 10 miles an hour, okay. Blew the horn one long, rang the bell.”

Lawmakers angry

Regardless of whether Gallagher’s undiagnosed sleep apnea played a role in the Hoboken crash, Trump’s decision to cancel the screening requirement angered lawmakers from New Jersey and New York.

Last month, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York joined Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging the Trump administration to reconsider the scrapping of the proposed rule.

They cited the Hoboken crash, as well as a December 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx, which killed four people. The Metro-North engineer also had been diagnosed with sleep apnea.

“We strongly believe that DOT should immediately reconsider the decision in order to help avoid future fatigue-related tragedies,” the four Democrats wrote Chao last month.

On Thursday, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, slammed the Trump administration for yanking the screening proposal before the NTSB had a chance to offer its conclusions about the Hoboken crash.

“Safety must be our top priority, which is why it is shameful that the Trump administration decided to withdraw its sleep apnea rule before NTSB could finalize its report,” Pascrell said in a statement.

Booker said he would introduce legislation “in the coming days” to expand sleep apnea testing and treatment requirements.

“We simply cannot stand idly by and wait for the next tragic incident,” Booker said in a statement. “It’s imperative that we take immediate steps to strengthen rail safety standards, and sleep apnea testing is a common sense safety measure that could prevent crashes and save lives.”

NJ Transit is also in the process of installing new bumper blocks at the end of the tracks in Hoboken Terminal, replacing the concrete-and-steel blocks that had been in place since the terminal was completed in 1907.

“The steps we’ve taken so far are moving us in the right direction, and we continually raise the bar higher each and every day,” said Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director. “Safety is a demand that I will not compromise or negotiate on.”

A missing form

The train’s 55-year-old conductor and 62-year-old brakeman were evaluated for sleep apnea in their last physical exams in 2014, and were found to not have the disorder.

Though NJ Transit has required safety-sensitive employees, including engineers and conductors, to be evaluated for sleep apnea since 2006, the required sleep apnea form was missing from Gallagher’s July 2016 physical, according to NTSB investigators.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep, depriving the body of oxygen, resulting in fatigue and drowsiness during the day.

Originally published here by northjersey.com

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