Occasionally, a passenger will ask me something “train safety” related like, “Do they ever inspect these trains to make sure they’re safe?” or, “It seems like this train came into the station awfully fast. Don’t these trains have speed limits?”
The many levels of train safety inspections (everywhere from the many brake safety tests preformed out on the mainline, the inspections completed in the shop every day, and up to the very detailed and involved quarterly locomotive and passenger car inspections that take that train out of service for a week to complete), are far beyond what most would think.
But what about the engineer? What checks are in place to keep the driver of the train in line?
Train handling safety rules, and speed limits are very strict, but with positive train control now in effect on our system, which forces speed compliance, a speeding train normally isn’t a thing here. However, under certain circumstances, it is possible for the engineer to break some rule. When that does happen, the consequences for doing such can be quite severe.
In fact, if an engineer were to commit just one certain operational error, his license is immediately revoked, and when proven in an investigation, he isn’t allowed back on duty for a month. At the railroad’s discretion, this might be reduced to fifteen days with proper retraining and other remedial compliance. A second error within two years will result in suspension of the license for six months, a third within three years requires a one-year suspension, but of course the railroad would have sent that engineer packing long before.
There are six of these terrible rule infractions, and we call them “The Six Deadly Sins”.
In a nutshell, here they are:
- Passing a signal requiring the train to stop.
- Exceeding the speed limit by 10 MPH.
- Failure to complete all required brake tests.
- Occupying main tract without authority.
- Tampering with any safety device.
- Violation of any FRA drug or alcohol regulation.
At first glance, this looks like an easy list to comply with. Just don’t run a stop signal. Don’t speed, don’t do drugs or drink on the job, etc. But its not quite that easy or simple. For example, in the regular routine of the day, checking safety equipment when taking the controls and performing the proper brake tests is second nature, but when things go wrong, problems (and mistakes) can multiply. For example, the possibility of missing a critical procedure increases when taking over a late train in a non-typical location, from another engineer. Was there a proper briefing in the handover? Were proper brake tests completed by the previous engineer for the current direction? Are all records and safety seals as they should be? These non-routine crew changes usually happen after an incident or when there’s major delay anywhere in the system, and thus when there is pressure to hurry and get going.
Even #1 on this list could sneak up on you if you’re not vigilant. It’s not just running a red light. When doing a walk-around while taking over an unattended train, if you were to miss seeing a “Blue Flag” that some repair technician forgot to remove when he finished his work, that’s a de-certification of the engineer for “passing a signal requiring the train to stop.”
It was “Deadly Sin” #2 that got me, and again, it didn’t happen in a way that you would traditionally think of when talking about speeding.
Currently, I drive trains in an early morning shift, including during sunrise. One of the GCOR rules that we follow, is to dim our headlights for oncoming trains in the dark, except when at a crossing. This exception is because we are required to have full-brights on for the crossings. When our headlights are dimmed, our ditch-lights, the ones at the bottom of the triangle of the train’s headlights, are off. If both of these lower lights fail, our maximum speed allowed through the crossing is 20 MPH. So by dimming the headlights, the maximum speed allowed at the next crossing is suddenly reduced from whatever it previously was, to 20 MPH.
Right in the waxing phase of dawn I met my usual Southbound meet, and as usual, dimmed my headlights as we passed each other. Only this time, in the gradual brightening of the morning sky, I missed turning them back up to bright. I wasn’t distracted. I was on my game and very attentive to my job, but somehow, I missed it that one time. A few miles down the track, unaware of my impending doom, I committed that unpardonable sin as I passed the next crossing at the normal full speed.
It was at the next station that I discovered my error and realized my fate. My repentance was now too little too late as the radio calls soon followed. “Train 10, we have reports of a ditch-light out on your train…” Soon after that call the supervisor a few stations ahead of me was asked over the radio to contact control by phone. Sure enough, as soon as I pulled into the station, he was there to relieve me from duty and to send me back to our home offices where drug & alcohol testing, formal suspension, and other instructions on what to expect in the coming weeks if I were to regain my license and job.
I’m not someone who takes shortcuts or who tries to cheat the system, and I have been pleased with my job performance up to this point, so when this first happened, I was in shock. What really happened back there? How did I miss it? Even though I would never figure out those answers, I knew that with the aid of at least five video camera angles (3 on the train with 2 pointed at me, one at the crossing where the unpardonable sin occurred, and at least one at the next station where I discovered my mistake), and also with the tell all download of the onboard events recorder that logs my every flick of a control switch, the management investigating my incident would have all the answers.
After shock came my disappointment in myself for making the mistake, and maybe just a little disappointment in a system that seemed to be setup to foster failure. I pondered over the previous four and a half years when I had done everything right. Didn’t that count for anything? What about those countless close calls, where I knew that my constant alertness and quick response with the train horn and emergency brake system had save lives… many lives.
On one such dramatic incident I was almost at full speed blasting through a driving snowstorm. My windshield had resembled the Starship Enterprise going into warp speed. Ahead in the blizzard, I saw the oncoming headlights of another train on the adjoining track. But in the blizzard those headlights didn’t quite look right. Were they really on my track? Immediately dumping my train into emergency stop mode, I didn’t wait to see what it was. I had been laying on the horn for the last half-mile or so, long before I could see what was actually ahead of me. Only a few seconds before impact I could finally clearly see that the pickup truck had slid off the road and was high centered on my rails. In just the last second, the blur of a man ran around from the far side passenger door, between his truck and my train and off to the side. In the noise and rumble of the crash, I didn’t know if he had made it clear. Did flying debris from the crash hit him? Were there others in the truck that didn’t make it out? I didn’t know until later that I didn’t kill anyone that night. But I did know that if I hadn’t been as vigilant as I was, I would have killed someone. This had been my second similar crash in a matter of only a few months.
I pondered over the many close calls with cars and pedestrians that came just short of actual contact. Yes, my alertness and train handling skills had indeed saved many lives. Yet here and now I felt like I was a captured criminal.
Back at headquarters, I blew the breathalyzer, proving I had no measurable alcohol in my system. Now I’ve never had a drink of alcohol in my life, yet I was thankful that mouthwash isn’t part of my morning hygienic routine or I would have still failed. After providing the required samples to be sent into the lab for my drug test, I was ushered into the small conference room where I was formally charged. I also wrote out my own confession of when I had dimmed my headlights and why, along with when I realized that I hadn’t turned them back up to “brights” again.
After the formalities of this meeting, including handing over my actual engineer’s license, now officially suspended, I was released to find my way home while the formal investigation continued. It felt like I was out on bail.
I don’t consider myself overly prideful or arrogant, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling this story right now, but it was still embarrassing and humiliating to now face my coworkers with my shame. It was obvious to others that I was out of my regular routine. When asked, I just frankly replied, “I just got decertified… Headlights.” That was all that needed to be said. They all knew what it meant.
In a way it felt even more shameful that such a simple thing got me. It was something I had preached to all my student engineers to never do. “Don’t dim for the oncoming train unless it is still dark enough so that you can SEE that they are still dimmed after the train passes… Make sure you have a procedure in place to POSSITIVILY remind you to turn them back up to bright again.”
Well, I’ve now paid my debt to society. With proper retraining and retesting to prove that I can, once again, become a competent railroad engineer, I am allowed back on the rails after only a half a month. Of course, I am on probation. Any mistake within a year will be revisited with vengeance. If it’s one of those 6 deadly sins within 2 years, the penalty is suspension for 6 months… 3 times within 3 years and I’d be out for a year, but of course my employer, FrontRunner, would have written me off well before that.
What’s different for me now? Well for starters, I’m surprised at how much it is taking to rebuild my self confidence that I can do my job perfectly every day, with no mistakes ever. I think about that while I watch the crowded highways along side the track. How many cars would still be on the road if every driver lost his license for not using proper signals going through an intersection? I’m thinking that alone would clear the streets.
Of course, I no longer qualify as a driving instructor for new engineers. So, I now only serve them as the bad example. “Don’t do what he did!”
As I drive the train now, I am continually looking for ways to dot my every i and cross my every t., even when we get knocked out of our regular routines. Before this happened to me, a fellow engineer, and former student of mine, Scott, suggested that we might benefit from the Shias Kanko practice used in Japan by their railroad engineers. Apparently shisa kanko is Japanese for “pointing and calling”. Scott says that research shows that this pointing and calling out of critical operations reduces error by 85%.
So if you are like some of my passengers, who have asked me questions about “…if we take safety seriously when working with the trains, let me assure you that if its safety you are concerned about when traveling up and down the Wasatch Front, you should stay off of the freeway and just ride the train.
I have been completely rehabilitated and am, once again, a safe train engineer. So, no need to worry if you see me pointing at something in the distance while talking to myself as I’m driving your train. I’m just practicing “Shisa Kanko”. So, you can rest assured that I’ll drive you through all public crossings with full brights glaring away. Or as Tom Bodett would say in his old Motel 6 commercials, “I’ll keep the lights on for you.”