Lack of sleep apnea testing blamed for Hoboken and Brooklyn rail crashes

HOBOKEN, N.J. — A lack of required testing for a pernicious sleep disorder was the primary cause of two serious train crashes in New Jersey and New York, federal investigators concluded in a report Tuesday as they renewed the call for the testing to be mandatory.

After a 16-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that a train crash at Hoboken Terminal on Sept. 28, 2016 that killed a mom and injured about 100 people was caused by the engineer, Thomas Gallagher, being tired because he suffered from an undiagnosed sleep disorder called sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a disease where people experiences obstructions in their airway while sleeping, causing interrupted sleep and fatigue.

The NTSB also determined that the engineer in the Atlantic Terminal train crash on Jan. 4, 2017 had fallen asleep and also was suffering from fatigue because he had undiagnosed sleep apnea.

The NTSB said New Jersey Transit failed to screen their engineer for the disorder, but that the agency now does check it’s employees for sleep apnea, as does the LIRR.

Combined, these crashes caused one death and over 200 injuries, plus $11 million in property damage.

Investigators want sleep disorder screening for train engineers to become mandatory. Under the Obama administration, that was a rule. But after President Trump got elected, it was squashed.

Investigators were baffled at today’s hearing at NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C. — why revert to the old way of doing things when accidents like this can be the result?

“Looking at the multiple piles of broken sheet metal, and broken engines and broken people — it doesn’t seem to have been effective,” said Dr. Nicholas Webster, an NTSB Investigator.

The NTSB is also calling for a new technology to be developed that would automatically pull the brakes as a train enters the station, in case the engineer fails to do so.

“We’re saying, here is the goal: Stop the train before you get to the end of the track. Don’t rely on the engineers to stop the train,” said NTSB investigator Ted Turpin.

New Jersey Transit and LIRR have implemented a policy where two engineers must be in the front cab when a train is coming up to the end of a track inside a terminal — in case one engineer fails to hit the brakes.