After a train crash killed a woman and injured dozens more in September, the Hoboken train terminal concourse has finally reopened Monday morning. Complete repairs are estimated to be complete by 2019.
The Trump administration’s decision to drop a proposed requirement for sleep apnea screenings for train engineers and truck drivers runs counter to industry practices, expert recommendations and rules already in place by the government agency that regulates aviation safety.
Commuter railroads now screen their employees in “safety-sensitive” jobs for the disorder, as does the Federal Aviation Administration for airline pilots.
Yet the federal agencies that regulate railroads and trucking companies decided last week that they didn’t have enough information to make the screenings mandatory.
Federal regulators just last year began the process of developing a new rule on screening train and truck operators after fatal commuter train crashes in New Jersey and New York.
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that interrupts breathing during sleep, leaving those who suffer from it fatigued and drowsy during the day. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that 22 percent of Americans have sleep apnea, mostly men over 40 and those who are overweight or obese. The majority have not been diagnosed.
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The National Transportation Safety Board has been calling for the screenings for years.
The NTSB recommended five years ago that the Federal Railroad Administration require railroads to medically screen employees in safety-sensitive positions for sleep apnea.
In 2009, the NTSB advised the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to develop a program requiring commercial truck drivers at high risk for sleep apnea to prove they’ve been tested and treated for the disorder as a condition of receiving a certificate to drive.
President Donald Trump’s move reverses a process to put the apnea rule in place that began in 2016, during the Obama administration, and is consistent with his promise to jettison regulations proposed under his predecessor.But experts say Trump’s move ignores the extensive research on sleep apnea.
“It’s equivalent to ignoring the science on climate change,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman during the Clinton administration. “You can ignore it, but it will still have an effect. Lives will be lost.”
“It’s equivalent to ignoring the science on climate change.”
Jim Hall, former NTSB chairman
Four people were killed in December 2013 when a Metro-North commuter train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The engineer, who was later diagnosed with sleep apnea, had failed to reduce the train’s speed ahead of a curve. The train derailed at 82 mph where it was supposed to be going 30.
One person was killed last September when an NJ Transit commuter train plowed through an end-of-track barrier at Hoboken Terminal. That train’s engineer was also diagnosed with sleep apnea. His train was going about twice the appropriate speed.
Alcibiades Rodriguez, medical director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center-Sleep Center at New York University, said that anyone who operates a train or a truck or heavy machinery should be evaluated for sleep disorders.
“All of them should be screened for sleep apnea,” he said.
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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road trains and New York City’s subway and bus systems, began screening its employees for sleep apnea in 2015. The agency started with Metro-North and expanded to the remaining operations this year, according to Nancy Gamerman, a spokeswoman.
“Trump withdrawing the sleep apnea testing rule for trucking and railroad employees does absolutely nothing to change the MTA’s commitment to sleep apnea screening and testing,” she said.
Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for NJ Transit, said the agency has been screening workers for sleep apnea since 2005 and put additional measures in place after the Hoboken crash last year.
That includes removing employees who exhibit potential fatigue symptoms from service until they can document they’ve received the appropriate treatment.
“We will continue to ensure our engineers and other employees in safety-sensitive positions are screened, diagnosed and treated for any medical condition that may affect alertness or fatigue, including sleep disorders,” she said.
Christina Leeds, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said the passenger railroad’s required annual physical exams for engineers include a sleep apnea screening.
Since 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration has required medical examiners certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation to screen pilots for sleep apnea. Those determined to be at risk for the disorder will be cleared to fly, but will be given 90 days to complete a more comprehensive sleep apnea analysis, in a lab or at home.
In spite of the FAA practice and the recommendations of medical professionals and transportation safety experts, the department concluded last week that “there is not enough information available to support moving forward with a rulemaking action.”
“There is not enough information available to support moving forward with a rulemaking action.”
U.S. Department of Transportation
Part of the resistance to making the screenings mandatory could be the cost.
Half the truck drivers surveyed last year by the American Transportation Research Institute who underwent sleep studies said they paid out-of-pocket costs for the testing. Their median out-of-pocket expense, $800, was close to the median national truck driver wage of $805.
Rodriguez said truck drivers tend to exhibit the characteristics of sleep apnea more than the general population. Markers include loud snoring, large neck circumference, high body-mass index, daytime fatigue and loss of concentration and high blood pressure.
“All of those things can be signs of sleep apnea,” he said.
“Regulatory agencies worldwide owe it to truck drivers and to the motorists who share the road with them to require objective screening, diagnostic testing and treatment adherence monitoring for all commercial drivers,” wrote Charles Czeisler, a co-author of the study and a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The Harvard study said its findings could apply to other modes, including rail, aviation, maritime transportation and mass transit.
Rodriguez, who has treated MTA employees for sleep disorders, draws a distinction between screening for sleep apnea and treating it.
“Not everybody needs a sleep study,” he said, adding, “Everybody should be asked about this, because it is a risk.”
“Everybody should be asked about this, because it is a risk.”
Alcibiades Rodriguez, NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center-Sleep Center
Hall said the science behind sleep disorders has been developing since he served as NTSB chairman in the 1990s. Hall gave credit to Mark Rosekind, a human fatigue expert who served as an NTSB member from 2010 to 2014 and now heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, another agency within the Department of Transportation.
“I feel comfortable with the board’s recommendations,” Hall said.
But now, Hall said, Trump has declared “open season” on regulation.
“I hope that over a period of time, some of these things may just prove to be symbolic and won’t be a major course change in the regulatory framework that has protected us for years,” he said.
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