Subject: "Oversight of the Amtrak Accident in Philadelphia."; Testimony by Dennis Pierce, National President, BLET

Post date: Jun 23, 2015 3:09:59 AM

I wanted to share with you BLET President Dennis Pierce's powerful testimony before the T&I Committee regarding the Amtrak Accident in Philadelphia last month. Brother Pierce makes strong arguments concerning the failure to implement Positive Train Control (PTC), to demand two person crews, engineer fatigue and the lack of adequate funding from Congress for Amtrak.

Congressional Documents and Publications

June 2, 2015

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Hearing;

"Oversight of the Amtrak Accident in Philadelphia.";

Testimony by Dennis Pierce, National President, Brotherhood of Locomotive

Engineers and Trainmen

Good morning, Chairman Shuster, Ranking Member DeFazio, and Members of the

Committee. My name is Dennis Pierce and I am the National President of the

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, or BLET, which has nearly

39,000 active members; I also am the President of the 70,000-member Rail

Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. My testimony today

will encompass the views and concerns of both groups.

I would like to begin by offering my most sincere condolences to the victims of

the tragic Amtrak 188 accident and to their families. One of the most difficult

parts of my job is when I have to convey the BLET's sorrow to the families of

members killed in the line of duty. I have had to do that eleven times -- to the

families of Glenn Steele, Chance Gober, Dan Hall, John Hall, Todd Burckhard, J.

G. Hadden, Chris Carter, Tom Anderson, Tom Kenny, Stanley Watts and Darrell

Amerson -- since I became BLET National President on July 1, 2010, and

unfortu-nately I fear that I will have to do it many more times during my


What is even more difficult to accept is when proven safety technology exists

that could have prevented even one of those deaths. In fact, of the eleven names

I just mentioned, five of those deaths could have been prevented by Positive

Train Control alone. Further, for the period from 2005 through 2013, the NTSB

completed 16 investigations of railroad accidents that could have been prevented

or mitigated with Positive Train Control (PTC). These 16 accidents claimed 52

lives and injured 942 others; the damages totaled hundreds of millions of

dollars. These figures exclude the PTC-preventable accidents that NTSB did not

investigate. So believe me when I say that I share the frustration of those

whose lives have been forever changed by the Amtrak 188 tragedy.

As background information, the BLET's Safety Task Force is a party to the

ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation of Amtrak 188. An

investigative team from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division

of the Teamsters Rail Conference also is assisting in the investigation. Both

Organizations are governed by the NTSB's confidentiality rules and, therefore,

and have been asked not disclose any investigative information that may have

come to our attention unless it has been publicly released by the NTSB.

In this regard, the NTSB has publicly commented on two points. One is that

excess train speed at the Frankford Junction curve contributed to Amtrak 188

leaving the tracks. The other is that this accident would not have occurred if

PTC, as an overlay on top of the existing signal system, had been operational.

Beyond that, I can tell you that the Amtrak 188 tragedy places a number of core

elements of fed-eral oversight of the nation's railroads front and center. One

is the statutory mandate that PTC be implemented by year's end. Another is the

safety redundancy afforded by maintaining two-person crews in locomotive cabs. A

third is the vexing issue of crew fatigue. Fourth, I want to briefly address

inward-facing cameras as I am certain that subject will come up during this

hear-ing. And, finally, I want to comment on the nation's expectations for


But before I turn to those issues, I'd like to spend a few moments giving you --

and all those watching -- the unique perspective shared by locomotive engineers

and, indeed, all railroad op-erating employees. It is important that you spend a

few minutes in our shoes, because what non-railroaders see as solutions to

problems often bring with them adverse unintended consequences that we can

identify in advance.

About one in ten thousand Americans is a working locomotive engineer today. We

comprise one of the most highly skilled, highly trained and highly regulated and

federally licensed professions in the nation's workforce. Our work is very

dangerous, with the potential for catastrophe -- for ourselves, our co-workers,

the traveling public and the communities through which we work -- always lurking

in the background, as May 12th starkly reminds us.

Just as in nearly every other workplace over the past couple of decades,

technology has revolu-tionized the workplace of locomotive engineers in freight

and passenger service. In fact, the ef-ficiency and the productivity of today's

locomotive engineer are at levels that couldn't be imagined 50 years ago.

But the increased efficiency and productivity due in part to various

technologies are increasingly being offset by heightened safety risks:

* The use of "distributed power" or DP locomotives -- which are strategically

placed in the middle or at the rear of freight trains even though they are

controlled by the engineer on the lead locomotive -- allows railroads to run

much longer and heavier trains with one crew ... that's good in terms of

efficiency and productivity. However, the engineer must divide his attention in

order to monitor and control those sets of locomotives separately, including

constantly making separate mental calculations to operate each set of

locomo-tives ... and that increases risk.

* A large number of locomotives are equipped with "fuel saver" technology, which

opti-mizes fuel consumption through a series of computer calculations ... again,

good for effi-ciency and productivity. However, the system records all

locomotive activity and if the engineer substitutes his or her professional

judgment and experience for the computer al-gorithm, the engineer could suffer

employment sanctions ... again, there is increased risk because the system

punishes exercises of professional judgment and experience.

* Virtually every locomotive in America is equipped with an "event recorder"

that records dozens of locomotive activities ... which, once more, is good for

efficiency and produc-tivity. However, event recorder data is routinely

downloaded during a trip, and then ana-lyzed by a computer program that looks

for -- among things -- rapid manipulation of the throttle that increases fuel

usage or rapid braking that more quickly wears out brake shoes on locomotives

and cars. When an anomaly is discovered, the computer automatically notifies

someone in railroad management, which leads to a more in-depth investigation

and, all too often, causes the engineer to suffer employment sanctions even when

no ac-cident or incident results ... once more, risk is increased because the

system punishes ex-ercises of professional judgment and experience.

A typical workday for today's freight locomotive engineer consists of up to12

hours of monitor-ing and operating multiple train control systems, all the while

doing his or her best to avoid the pitfalls presented by fuel saver and event

recorder technologies, all of which distracts the engi-neer from focusing on the

external environment in which the train is operating. Similar distrac-tions

exist for passenger and commuter engineers, who have to account for every minute

of delay during their trip, even if the train's schedule allows that time to be

made up when the train ar-rives at its final destination.

Today's operating environment also increases risk because engineers are punished

for taking steps to avert a potential emergent situation. When I was a young

locomotive engineer, the "old timers" used to tell me, "If you think you need to

use your emergency brakes to avoid a problem and don't do it immediately, you're

already too late." Today, I am convinced that preventable train accidents and

incidents are occurring due to the fact that engineers have been trained under

threat of discipline to never apply the emergency brake. When they do, even if

it is to avoid an unsafe situation, engineers are routinely charged with a

violation of railroad policy. In other words, the foundation of today's

operation leads to accidents in situations where they wouldn't have happened in

the past.

The fact of the matter is that the level of vigilance required of a locomotive

engineer has reached the point of task overload in many parts of the industry.

And when too much is expected of any system -- whether man or machine -- some

type of breakdown is inevitable.

It's fashionable to look for a single cause of an accident, and when the cause

appears to be a hu-man error that usually seems to be the end of the inquiry.

It's been said that if people would just not make mistakes then everything would

work fine ... their otherwise faultless systems would run smoothly and without


Anyone who engages in root cause accident analysis will tell you this is an

oversimplification that punishes the person, in most cases an employee, and

camouflages underlying systemic prob-lems. If drivers obeyed every speed sign

and every traffic law and never made mistakes there would be no car collisions;

yet we mandate seatbelts and airbags because we know humans are not infallible.

Because weaknesses and shortcomings in equipment design and operational

prac-tices are generally found if a thorough root cause analysis of an accident

is performed, the ques-tion really must evolve into "which humans" made errors

that contributed to the accident in addition to the last human assumed to have

made an error.

So, for example, we know that Amtrak's Automatic Train Control (ATC) system was

active for westbound moves through Frankford Junction, but was not active for

eastbound moves, such as the move Amtrak 188 was making at the time of the

derailment. Amtrak has explained that the westbound speed reduction from 110 mph

to 50 mph entailed a higher risk than the eastbound speed reduction from 80 mph

to 50 mph, which made ATC activation for the westbound move a higher priority.

Was that decision a human error that contributed to the accident? Similarly, if

we eventually learn that, for some reason, the engineer of Amtrak 188 became

temporarily con-fused as to his location, it may be reasonable to conclude that

the simple use of speed signs in the approach to the curve, as a reminder, may

have prevented this accident. That would raise a ques-tion whether the decision

not to post such signs was a human error that contributed to the acci-dent.

It also may be true that Amtrak was forced to prioritize ATC installation the

way it did because the railroad did not have sufficient resources to implement