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Train Engineer: You Have To Be 'Ready To Act'


Amtrak has promised to improve safety precautions following the deadly train derailment in Philadelphia this past week. Yesterday, the company said it will install a speed restriction system on the same stretch of track where the crash occurred. The National Transportation Safety Board has said that technology could have prevented the derailment. But investigators are still trying to understand what caused the train to go off the tracks in the first place. We're going to hear from one person who spends his life on the railroad. John Wright is a freight train engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United. He says it's a hard job requiring years of experience. One of the biggest factors effecting safety, he says, is the schedule.

JOHN WRIGHT: The shifts are unpredictable. And that's, you know - the long shifts, you know, people can work 12 hours and get 12 hours of rest. That's no problem. But it's the around-the-clock, on-call, not really sure when your next trip is going to be - it could be right after 12 hours, it could be 18, it could be 36 because we're on an - you know, many railroads have many different schedules. I am on a first-in, first-out extra board, meaning that if they need an extra engineer, they call me. And I never know when they're going to need an extra engineer. So my life is - I'm married to my phone, you know, me and Siri have a pretty good relationship.


WRIGHT: I always know where my phone is for sure.

MARTIN: You know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been saying a lot to this past week that this system called positive train control, which automatically slows or stops trains - that this could've prevented the derailment that we saw this past week. What do you think about that? Is that something that you would like to see on the trains that you engineer?

WRIGHT: Well, yeah. I mean, we, as railroad employees, have been asking for positive train control for over a decade. But the problem is that the railroad industry is seeing positive train control as a way to further reduce the amount of workers on the cab of the train. So yeah, we want positive train control, but it's a safety overlay, not a reason to further reduce crew size.

MARTIN: There are, obviously, a lot of unknowns still in this case related to the derailment, and the investigation is ongoing. So we don't want to make any assumptions about what happened. But the NTSB said this weekend that they are looking into the possibility that some kind of object could have hit the train before it crashed. I wonder, as an engineer, have you ever had to deal with something unpredictable like that happening? And how do you handle it?

WRIGHT: I've hit cows, full-grown oak trees, semis, people. We deal with that kind of stuff, you know, and think about fatigue. When you are so incredibly fatigued, and something like that happens, you have to be right on, ready to act. And so conservation technology has cut us even further away 'cause it's like driving a train with cruise control. To have an operator at the controls ready to do anything at the drop of a hat to prevent some kind of derailment - I mean, these terms are 9,000 tons and over 15,000 feet. You know, that's almost two miles of 9,000 tons going 50 miles an hour through a community. We are very aware that we are the ones that quite could potentially prevent a serious, tragic accident, you know. And we're trained very well to do these jobs and qualified.

MARTIN: John Wright. He's a locomotive engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United. Thanks so much for talking with us.

WRIGHT: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.