Who regulates US rail workers' shifts?
Published: September 22, 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times
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The US Federal Aviation Administration sets rules for what kinds of work
shifts pilots can safely fly. The US Federal Motor Carrier Safety
Administration regulates hours for truck drivers. So why doesn't the US
Federal Railroad Administration have the authority to do the same for
train engineers and other rail workers whose alertness is vital to
Investigators might never know whether fatigue contributed to the fatal
errors made by Robert M. Sanchez, the engineer of the Metrolink train
that hit a freight train Sept. 12, killing more than two-dozen people.
But the dangerous consequences of long work shifts without meaningful
rest breaks for people in jobs that require constant attention are well
documented. Two US Federal bills would impose more reasonable shifts for
rail workers, but the Bush administration has a better idea: Instead of
Congress micromanaging transit workers' time sheets, let the railroad
agency set the rules.
According to Times reports, Sanchez began his workday shortly before 6
a.m. and worked until 9:30 a.m. Then he received a 4 1/2 -hour break
before beginning a seven-hour shift that ended at 9 p.m. Even assuming
that he could get home within half an hour of ending his night shift,
that he spent no time on dinner or relaxation, that he could fall asleep
immediately and didn't bother showering or brushing his teeth when he
awoke, he would have gotten a bare eight hours of sleep before having to
start his commute to work in the morning. Sanchez was nearing the end of
five back-to-back split shifts when he apparently ignored three signals
warning him of the freight train ahead.
Metrolink, which fought off previous efforts to make rail workers'
schedules more reasonable, should be leaping to support the latest
efforts. Yes, it will cost more money to hire workers for both the
morning and evening rush hours, and those costs will be passed on to
passengers. Perhaps, as Metrolink executives have predicted in the past,
that will reduce ridership -- but not nearly as much as a perception
that trains are dangerous and that Metrolink is doing nothing to make
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of rail-safety bills that
would improve railroad employees' schedules, but these would only
continue a system under which it takes a literal act of Congress to
tweak work rules to meet changing conditions. The Bush administration
has proposed empowering the US Federal Railroad Administration, which
could act far more nimbly than Congress, to regulate work shifts. Too
bad this sensible idea hasn't gained any traction.