LOS ANGELES – Federal investigators are trying to determine whether back-to-back, split shift workdays that began before dawn and ended at 9 p.m. played a role in a Metrolink engineer’s failure to heed warning lights in last week’s crash that left 25 people dead.
Engineer Robert M. Sanchez’s regular five-day work week was spread over nearly 53 hours, according to authorities. He would have been near the end of that schedule on Friday afternoon when he sped his train through a red light and collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train.
National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins told the Los Angeles Times that she was “very concerned” about Sanchez’s schedule, noting a “human performance team” will pursue evidence that might shed light on the possible effects of Sanchez’s work hours.
“It’s a long day,” she said.
Sanchez had worked four days of identical shifts before Friday: He began his day just before 6 a.m., worked until almost 9:30 a.m. and took a 4 1/2-hour break before beginning a seven-hour shift at 2 p.m., according to the NTSB. The crash occurred at 4:23 p.m.
The conductor on Sanchez’s train told federal investigators Tuesday that Sanchez took a two-hour nap during his break Friday, Higgins told reporters. The conductor, who had been working with Sanchez since April, said he had no problems with the way the engineer operated the train.
Fatigue caused by the irregular and often long work schedules of train crews has been a persistent and deadly problem in the railroad industry despite decades of study. Safety regulators have called for measures that would require railroads to provide longer rest periods between shifts.
The NTSB has warned that operating a train without sufficient rest “presents an unnecessary risk to the traveling public” and lists reforms to address fatigue as one of its “most wanted” rail safety improvements.
However, Metrolink’s top executive told Congress last year that proposals to increase minimum off-duty time for rail workers were unnecessary for commuter systems.
David R. Solow told a Senate subcommittee that commuter rail had a good safety record and that existing practices provided adequate assurance “that fatigue does not affect safety,” records show.
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