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The Region | THE METROLINK CRASH

Fatigue Is Too Often Part of Job, Train Operators Say

Railways: The Placentia crash is on the minds of Burlington Northern Santa Fe engineers and conductors between shifts at Barstow motel.

April 26, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BARSTOW--The railroad workers stumble into the shabby, fluorescent-lighted Motel 8 lounge here at all hours, on rest breaks between runs across Southern California. They head straight for the large computer up front and play the "boards" like gamblers at a Vegas slot machine, cursing, muttering, even yelling in frustration as they punch the keys.

They are engineers and conductors for Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad who are checking their work schedules.

"Look at this!" one conductor from Los Angeles exclaimed, seeing that there was only one conductor ahead of him before he would be sent back out on the rails. It was after 2 a.m. Wednesday, and he was still tired from his previous run.

The Motel 8 is a terminal motel, with a bank of rooms contracted out to the railroad for its workers' use.

A spokeswoman for the railway company said it maintains high safety standards. "I have never worked for a safer company," Lena Kent said. "They are a leader in industry safety."

But the railroad men--and they were all men at the motel Wednesday morning--said irregular shifts, along with work rules that can unexpectedly land them far from home, make for a sometimes frustrating and exhausting job--though one that is well paid and exhilarating. And as they talked about the job's challenges, their thoughts turned again and again to the freight train that collided head-on with a Metrolink passenger train Tuesday in Placentia, killing two and injuring more than 160.

The preliminary indications are that human error caused the crash, with engineer Darrell Wells running through two warning lights. He and conductor Dean E. Tacoronte were injured. Fatigue is being examined as one possible cause.

More than two dozen of the men's fellow workers here said that although they had no idea what had happened, fatigue was a likely possibility, even though the two men had not been scheduled for any extraordinary hours shortly before the crash. All the train workers said that sleep deprivation and grueling schedules were the most serious safety issue on the freight trains, and that perhaps this week's tragedy would bring about change.

But many of the workers said scheduling changes could go a lot further toward preventing fatal crashes. They'd like regular schedules, and to know in advance when they'll be off.

"The rules are written in blood here," one engineer said. "The only time they change is when people are injured or die."

Logs of Wells' and Tacoronte's schedules obtained by The Times show that Wells had been off for 22 hours, after working in the Los Angeles train yard from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. His wife lives in Needles, friends said, but he often stays with his mother in the San Fernando Valley. Tacoronte had been off for about 10 hours, after working from 9:15 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. the day before the crash, and 4 p.m. to midnight the day before that.

Shifts that vary from daytime to nighttime work have frequently been cited by safety experts as a potential factor in causing accidents.

Because of commuting time and other factors, colleagues said Tacoronte would have had a maximum of six hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Both men reported for duty at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to the logs, scheduled to make a "long run" to Barstow 149 miles away. Instead, nearly six hours later, they had only reached Placentia. It was not clear at what time the train pulled out of Los Angeles.

"The thing I wonder the most is why did it take five hours to go 35 miles? I don't know Darrell and Dean's situation that night, but I imagine they were definitely tired," said a fellow conductor.

Both men probably knew that because of the delays, they risked being "dead headed" on the tracks, forced to stop the train after 12 hours rather than reach their destination, and wait for a van to pick them up and shuttle them to the nearest terminal motel, like the one in Barstow.

Because of past concerns about fatigue-related crashes, Federal Railroad Administration law limits train-operator work shifts to 12 hours. Workers say that they agree with the law but that being marooned repeatedly in a company motel far from home with no pay is not their idea of time off.

"We worked 11 hours and 10 minutes," said Danny Lobb, 26, of Bakersfield, sprawled on a sofa late Wednesday afternoon. Lobb and an engineer had worked through the night bringing freight from Bakersfield to Barstow, arriving shortly after 9 a.m.

Eight hours later, he was waiting for a call to go back to work, never having been home. He has missed more of his 8-year-old daughter's birthdays than he has attended, and he and his wife regularly reschedule their anniversary celebration.

"Doing this job, you don't have a life," said Shane Adams, 38, a conductor out of Bakersfield. "Your significant other is the guy in the engine with you."

But Adams, who is a second-generation railroad man, said he loves the job when he is out on the rails.

"Once you get out of the yard, it's great," he said. "You're out in the open."

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