A tragic train wreck Sunday in New York produced a flurry of news media calls to an expert in Omaha who says the apparent cause of the crash is a reminder to those of us who drive cars, not trains.
“Have you ever driven down the highway, you're tired and you don't remember the last couple of miles?” said consultant Russell Quimby. “You start to doze off, and you fight it by rolling down the windows or chewing gum. But you actually need to get off the highway and take a nap.”
The operator of the Metro-North Railroad train that derailed Sunday in the Bronx apparently had nodded off before the train reached 82 mph going around a bend with a 30 mph speed limit. The derailment caused four deaths and 70 injuries.
The operator couldn't pull over and take a nap, but he shouldn't have been driving the train if he wasn't well-rested.
Quimby, a Nebraska native and West Point military graduate, grew up in a railroad family and spent 22 years as a rail-accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. He lives in northwest Omaha with his wife, Paula, and is president of Quimby Consulting.
With many people preparing to drive long distances over the holidays, the New York wreck is a reminder to all of the danger of dozing at the wheel.
“What happened to this guy is probably symptomatic of a lot of Americans, who are just not in as responsible a position as he was,” Quimby said. “He had recently worked nights and afternoons and now worked the morning. His work-rest cycles and his circadian rhythms had shifted.”
Another possible factor, Quimby said, is that the operator, William Rockefeller, looks to be overweight, which could mean he has sleep apnea.
“It's a vicious cycle,” Quimby said. “If you don't sleep well, you gain weight. And if you gain weight, you don't sleep well.”
Investigators, meanwhile, are looking into other factors. The New York Times reported Thursday that the train included an “alerter” system designed to warn an operator of a potential accident. But the alerter was not in the front car where Rockefeller apparently fell into an early-morning daze.
The system sounds an alarm and applies brakes automatically if an operator does not respond to the alarm within 15 seconds. But it was in a locomotive at the back of the train, which was in a push-pull configuration — one engine pulling from the front, the other pushing from the back.
That configuration was said to be common on Metro-North. So in effect, the Times said, trains configured like the one in the derailment employ the alerter system in only half their runs.
Quimby said the NTSB no doubt will address that.
“I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the safety board will make an issue of that,” Quimby said Thursday. “They certainly will make a safety recommendation as a result.”
Growing up in South Sioux City, Neb., where he played football, swam and ran track in high school, Quimby wanted to be a fighter pilot. But imperfect eyesight grounded that idea.
At West Point, he was a classmate of future generals David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey and majored in engineering. Quimby spent five years on active duty and 10 in the Army Reserve and worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad.
With the NTSB in Washington, D.C., he became investigator-in-charge and took part in 57 major railroad accident investigations. In most cases, he said, the cause is traced to human error.
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“Usually, there is more than one thing that went wrong,” he said. “Accidents generally have a chain. There was usually a change of routine.”
Quimby, 63, who said he endured a total of three hours daily commuting when he worked in the nation's capital, moved to Omaha in 2007 when he retired from the NTSB.
He is glad to be near his parents: Ardyce, 94, and Bing, 95 — a World War II veteran and a career-long locomotive engineer. Russ said he enjoys the quality of life in Nebraska.
“The people here are friendly and hardworking and have a good attitude,” he said. “Things work here. The schools are good, the roads are well-maintained and housing and utilities are cheap. The only drawback is that property taxes are outrageous.”
He said he is pleased that a 1970 West Point graduate, Gov. Dave Heineman, is trying to reconfigure the tax base.
Quimby, vice president of the West Point Society of Nebraska, attends college fairs and tells students about the military academy. It's one of the best educations available, he said, and helps young people understand that “you can do things you never thought you could.”
Train travel, he said, is a safe form of transportation, far safer than traveling by automobile. But accidents happen in both, and people need to open their eyes to the danger of drowsiness.
We need to get our shut-eye. But certainly not when driving.