Chuck, a locomotive engineer, says he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in more than 20 years. Chuck isn’t his real name, and the 20 years is probably an exaggeration. But his fatigue is very real. I can hear it in his voice. He’s tired, angry, impatient, and very anxious to talk about his chronic fatigue — something he blames on the unpredictable schedules of his work. And the hazard he says this represents to the Canadian public.
And sometime in the next few hours, he’ll be boarding the locomotive of a freight train and putting in a shift. The money is good — engineers can earn as much $170,000 a year, according to his employer — but the condition of the operators can evoke dread.
Chuck says he’s always tired, operating on autopilot. (He insists on staying anonymous. Otherwise, he says he’d be fired).
“A typical day cycle or night cycle for me is … get up, check the lineup, see where my placement on the board is, where the trains line up, and then go on about my day.”
Chuck can check his “placement” on his smartphone app.
“I’m trying to plan for when I’m gonna go to work. So if I show going to work at, say, 18 o’clock at night, and I’ve had a nap in the afternoon, and then I wake up to take that call at 18 o’clock, and that call doesn’t come, and now I’m awake because I’ve had a nap, maybe that call doesn’t come until one in the morning.
“And I’ve been up all day, running around doing errands, and now I’m taking a call possibly six, seven, eight hours later than I thought. And I’ve been up all day.”
Unpredictable schedules are the bane of the rail industry, say the men and the women who drive the trains. And those schedules can wreak havoc with their sleep cycles. CP Rail insists that it follows the principles of modern fatigue science, and that its crews have the “unfettered right to choose not to work if they’re tired,” without fear of being disciplined. The Teamsters Union, which represents nearly 10,000 engineers and conductors, disputes this.
In 2014, the Teamsters surveyed their membership on the question of worker fatigue. The results are sobering. Just under 80 per cent of the respondents were “on call.” The rest were on scheduled shifts.
Here are some of the findings:
Only 13 per cent said they were getting enough sleep on working days.
42 per cent said they work a mix of different shifts.
Almost all of them said they had no scheduled days off.
42 per cent said they had put in 16-hour days three or more times in the past month.
Nearly three-quarters admitted that, at one time or another, they drifted off to sleep while working.
Nodding off behind the controls of a train
What happens when a locomotive engineer drifts off to sleep during his train run? A number of things can happen. If the conductor sees the engineer sleeping, he can wake him up. There’s also a cab alert system that requires attention every 90 seconds. If you don’t give it that attention, there’s an alarm and an automatic brake kicks in.
But Chuck says those safeguards are not enough.
“I’m a locomotive engineer, so I have a greater responsibility to be alert and to be focused and to be able to multitask with 20, 30, 40 things coming at me all at once, and all while driving a train that can be in excess of 2.5 miles long.”
“I’m focused on signals. I’m focused on crossings. I’m focused on speed increases, decreases. We have things that come out called slow orders. There could be problems with the track. There could be men working on the track.”
“Two-and-a-half miles of train that you’re trying to control in sections of speeds that can be upwards of 60 miles an hour, nodding off for even a brief five- to 10-second gap is not an option.”
According to the official investigation, fatigue at the controls is a possible cause of the 1986 Hinton, Alta., disaster in which a freight train collided with a passenger train, leaving 23 dead and dozens more injured.
The annals of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board have other examples in which crew fatigue contributed to collisions and derailments.
Clint Marquardt worked as an investigator in 30 of those accidents, and he has an ominous warning.
“I think,” he said. “That there’s a great risk of an accident that will cause some serious consequences to the Canadian public.”
He uses sophisticated software, developed with the help of the U.S. Air Force, to show how fatigue affects job performance.
Chuck, however, puts it in plain language.
“I am tired all the time. I am tired mentally because it’s a battle with the company. I’m tired mentally because I’m pulled at from every angle with home life, and I’m physically exhausted because my body is fighting to stay awake and to stay alert.