CALGARY—Just over a year ago on a CN freight train near Pickering, Ont., an anonymous CN conductor facing an uphill climb in Toronto’s east end with a fatigued crew put his foot down — literally.
With VIA trains lined up behind him, the conductor can be heard telling his supervisor, a chief rail traffic controller, that they won’t move the train any further until Transport Canada or his health and safety representative signs off on it. The conductor says the crew has been on-shift for more than 10 hours and warns they’d be handling the train in an unfit condition if forced to continue.
“I need you to know that we’re past my rest time here,” the conductor tells his supervisor in the radio calls from Oct. 2018, released by a railway union on Monday. “My engineer is exhausted. I’m exhausted. I told you we were exhausted right from the get-go. We warned you.”
Fatigue was one of the major factors behind a recent weeklong strike by 3,200 CN workers represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference. According to fatigue experts and past research, railway crews awake for more than 17 hours can be as impaired as a drunk driver with a .05 blood-alcohol volume. A full 24 hours without rest is closer to .10.
Despite warnings from unions, fatigue experts and even a ministerial order from Transport Minister Marc Garneau, workers continue to handle long shifts at all hours of the day or night with no regular schedule, or even the opportunity to nap in the cab. Transport Canada expressed concerns about fatigue in the rail industry shortly before the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. Though it wasn’t found to be a cause or contributing factor in that crash, experts say it takes a brutal toll on workers’ bodies.
“You can’t recover,” said Joseph De Koninck, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology. “You’re always sleep-deprived.”
Railways operate 24/7 and their workforce is always on call. As a result, train crews end up with irregular schedules that vary according to cargo volume. The two major Canadian railway companies, CN and Canadian Pacific Railway, have a fairly good idea of when their trains are departing and arriving, according to Clinton Marquardt, a fatigue specialist and former Transportation Safety Board investigator. But it isn’t exact.
Transport Canada rules allow workers to be on-shift for 12 hours at a time, but also allow them to work additional shifts up to a maximum of 18 hours. Marquardt said the real time drain for workers isn’t spent in the cab. Workers can spend hours filling out paperwork, hanging out in noisy, communal bunkhouses, or simply waiting for clearance to move. It can also take hours to get to their assigned trains from home. These factors can turn a 12-hour shift into a 17 or 18-hour day.
“What really makes us fatigued is not how long we’re working, but how long we’re awake,” he said.
To make matters more complicated, crews looking to head back to their home terminal need to work a return train, except it might not perfectly line up with their mandatory minimum rest time. Or, a worker might book rest time to sleep and potentially miss the perfect train home.
“Right away, it becomes a real challenge just to manage your sleep,” Marquardt said.
And staying awake for long periods of time can quickly impair judgment. De Koninck said the frontal lobe, a region of the brain responsible for higher-order decision making, is severely impacted by a lack of sleep. Staying awake for longer than 14 hours is similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication.
“You go to 18 hours — it’s the equivalent of being drunk,” De Koninck said.
The effects of chronic sleep disruption, or numerous days without adequate rest, can also eat away at railroad workers, Marquardt said. Overnight shifts disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm. And long hours spent winding a two-kilometre long train through the Kicking Horse Pass, for example, require crews to remain very attentive. The long-term health effects can take years off a person’s life, De Koninck said, and result in higher rates of cardiovascular disease, memory impairment, and obesity.
Fatigued crews at the controls of a locomotive react more slowly than a well-rested crew, Marquardt said. They don’t focus as clearly. They take more risks. Moreover, the interior of a locomotive’s cab is a dark and warm space, humming with the engine’s vibrations. It’s the sort of environment that can become even more sleep-inducing to tired crews.
“All of these things have some pretty big impacts on train handling safety,” he said.
Unlike pilots in the airline industry, train crews are also forbidden from grabbing naps in the cab — a useful technique to mitigate against fatigue. De Koninck said a 20-minute nap can improve wakefulness for up to four hours.
That said, Marquardt noted that fatigued crews aren’t crashing trains on a daily basis in Canada. In a post on fatigue management, the TSB said sleep-related fatigue has been identified as a contributing factor or a risk in 23 of the board’s railway investigations since 1994. Nineteen of them involved freight train crews.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Start your morning with everything that matters in Calgary with our Morning Headlines email newsletter.
Sign Up Now
However, Marquardt pointed out the potential for a catastrophic crash related to fatigue remains high, although he said such accidents don’t happen every day.
“I think for now, we’ve just been really, really lucky,” he said. “But the potential is pretty big.”
When fatigue-related incidents do happen, they can be catastrophic.
A variety of factors were to blame for the 2013 Lac-Mégantic railway disaster in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. According to Bruce Campbell, author of a book on the tragedy, one of them was fatigue. The book details that engineer Tom Harding was quite tired before he left the train that rolled through Lac-Mégantic, derailed and exploded, killing 47 people, spilling six million litres of crude, destroying the town centre and traumatizing the entire community.
“He’d been awake when he left that train for about 17 hours,” Campbell said.
In February, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau issued a ministerial order to Canada’s railway companies requiring them to adjust their work-rest rules to address the issue of fatigue. It noted the existing work-rest rules used by the industry don’t reflect the latest fatigue science and said the existing regulatory regime only covers rest periods and work limits. Anything beyond these two areas is mostly outside of Transport Canada’s oversight.
The ministerial order also points out that railway companies don’t provide shorter work periods during the evening, especially between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.
Railway companies pitched a new set of work-rest rules to the government, but Garneau wasn’t a fan. In a July letter, the minister declined to approve the plan and said he was “very disappointed with your overall submission.” He offered a new deadline of Nov. 1. The last Marquardt heard, the deadline had been pushed to 2020, though he didn’t have an exact date.
Shortly before a tentative agreement between the Teamsters and CN was announced, ending the weeklong strike, the union released the October recording as a warning about the safety risks surrounding fatigue. While the supervisor insisted a relief crew was waiting to replace them at their next station, the conductor still did not move the train. According to Teamsters spokesperson Christopher Monette, he was suspended for two weeks without pay.
Transport Canada said it did not receive any reports related to the incident. CN did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Star Calgary, but said in a previous statement it was aware of the leaked recording.
During the recorded argument, the supervisor can be heard saying personal rest isn’t a regulatory or safety issue and reminding the conductor that he needed to be ready for 12 hours of work after accepting a shift.
“If I take this train now and we hit somebody — who is responsible for that now? Me or you?” the conductor can be heard asking the supervisor just before the recording ends. “I think it’s both of us.”