WASHINGTON - The National Transportation Safety
Board has issued urgent safety recommendations to the Federal Railroad
Administration, the Association of American Railroads, the American Short Line
and Regional Railroad Association, and the American Public Transportation
Association to help ensure that electronic alertness devices or “alerters” work
as intended on trains.
The alerter helps crew members maintain vigilance in
the locomotive cab by monitoring locomotive engineer activity. If it has been too long since the locomotive
engineer performed an input or action to reset the alerter, the system issues
visual and audible alerts, and applies train brakes if there are still no
inputs from the crew. However, the
agency found, an alerter’s reckoning of “idle time” can be reset to zero by inputs
that do not necessarily demonstrate a crew member’s continuing engagement.
“The alerter is an automated system to make sure the
human is engaged and, if necessary, to take action,” said NTSB Acting Chairman
Christopher A. Hart. “We found that the
alerters were acting from automated events as if they had been human inputs.”
The NTSB discovered this safety issue and issued
urgent recommendations as a result of the ongoing investigation of the 2014
collision of two Union Pacific freight trains, one southbound and one
northbound, in Hoxie, Arkansas. The
accident resulted in the deaths of two crewmembers, the derailment of 55 cars,
a release of diesel fuel, a fire, and the evacuation of about 500 nearby
The southbound train was equipped with a horn
sequencer. The horn sequencer is activated with a single push of the sequencer
foot pedal under the engineer’s control console. Once activated it continually
sounds the cadence for approaching a highway-rail grade crossing – a series of
two long sounds, one short sound, and another long sound -- until the sequencer
foot pedal is again depressed.
The NTSB’s examination of the southbound train’s
event recorder noted that the horn sequencer reset the electronic alertness
device each time the horn blew, as if the locomotive engineer were commanding
each sound manually. This prevented the device from providing an alarm to the
train crew or activating the brakes.
While the NTSB has not yet reported the accident’s
probable cause, the agency issued these urgent recommendations to address the
safety issue that came to light during the investigation.
“The Union Pacific railroad has moved to fix this
problem. The FRA needs to require that other railroads understand the problem and
fix it where it is necessary,” said Hart.