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NTSB Wants the Safety of Lone Engineers Evaluated

Forget about the lone gunman theory, it's the lone train engineer that has the NTSB worried.

Forget about the lone gunman theory, it's the lone train engineer that has the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) worried.

The board is urging the Federal Railroad Administration to evaluate safety requirements imposed by the Canadian government on lone-engineer operations, and implement any of them that might be useful for U.S. railroads that use such operations on track that lack anti-collision technology.

The recommendation is included in the board's final report of a collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a freight train nine months ago that injured more than 60 people.

On Feb. 5, 2001, Amtrak train 286, on a scheduled run from Niagara Falls to New York City, collided with the rear of a CSX Transportation freight train near Syracuse, NY. At impact, the passenger train was traveling 35 mph and the freight train 7 mph. Amtrak's locomotive and four of its five cars derailed. The accident resulted in injuries to all four crewmembers and 58 of the passengers on the Amtrak train. No freight train crewmembers were injured.

Because of repair work to a track, all eastbound traffic was routed onto the same track. The wayside signal displayed a restricting aspect, telling the engineer of the Amtrak train to proceed at a speed no greater than 15 mph and be prepared to stop in half the distance he could see ahead. The engineer stated that he believed he had a medium approach signal, which would have allowed him to proceed at 30 mph and be prepared to stop at the next signal.

In either case, the train was moving at approximately 57 mph when the engineer applied emergency braking when he saw the slower moving freight train ahead of him. The Amtrak engineer told investigators after the crash that he had been going through his bag for track bulletins just before the collision.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be the engineer's inattention to the operation of his train, which led to his failure to recognize and comply with the speed limit imposed by the governing wayside signal, and the lack of any safety redundancy system capable of preventing a collision in the event of human failure.

The NTSB has had the issue of Positive Train Control Systems (PTC) on its list of most wanted safety improvements since 1990. Under PTC, a train would come to a stop if the engineer failed to properly operate his or her train in conformance to signal indications. The board concluded that such a system would most likely have prevented this accident.

Although Amtrak has had lone-engineer operations for decades, the NTSB said that it was concerned that such operations - without the protections of PTC - provide no redundancy to protect against human error. The board noted that in the late 1990s, the government of Canada allowed a Canadian rail line to use lone-engineer operations only if a number of safety-related conditions were met.

In its report on the Syracuse accident, the NTSB recommended that the FRA evaluate whether some of those requirements would have utility on operations in the United States on track not equipped with PTC. Other recommendations included securing onboard appliances and improvements to emergency response maps.

An abstract of the report may be obtained on the NTSB Web site at, under "Publications". The entire report will be available on the Web site in a few weeks. Printed copies will be available after that through the National Technical Information Service.

edited by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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