NTSB’s Hersman favors adequate rest

October 13, 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Debbie Hersman is the first member of the 37-year-old National Transportation Safety Board to bring to the job a detailed knowledge of railroads, reports Railway Age magazine.

Hersman was confirmed by the Senate in June following five years as a senior staff member of the Senate Commerce Committee, where she advised Democrats on multimodal transportation topics, including rail freight and passenger economic and safety issues. From 1992 to 1999, she was a legislative aide to former Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

At 34, Hersman is also among the youngest NTSB members — Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) was 33 when appointed in 1976 — but don’t for a moment equate Hersman’s relative youth with uncertainty or shyness.

Hersman sees her mission as unambiguous: “Safety advocate. Other federal agencies balance benefits and costs through the regulatory process. The NTSB makes recommendations with one goal in mind: Improving transportation safety. Although it is naïve to assume we don’t think about costs, our decisions are not guided by that principle.”

Enter positive train control–a collision- and over-speed-avoidance technology railroads embrace as if kissing one’s sister, owing to its substantial costs of implementation beyond pilot projects.

“The NTSB can identify accident after accident that would not have happened were PTC in place,” Hersman says. “A safety-redundant system can override human error, such as resulting from train crew fatigue. Redundancy is not too much to demand when dealing with human life.”

Hersman is not the first NTSB member to advocate PTC. Its implementation has been on NTSB’s “10-most wanted” safety improvements list since 1990.

Hersman also advocates continued elimination of highway-rail grade crossings, and wants to see increased industry efforts to eliminate train crew fatigue, such as assuring adequate rest. Hours-of-service regulations mandating specific rest periods may be too simplistic, however. Too often, accident investigations reveal a train crew was in compliance with hours-of-service regulations, but had not used their off-duty time to rest, she says.

Hersman says she will be focusing on how train crews spend their off-duty hours, whether current HOS rules are adequate, and how employers and an employee’s family might help assure train crews receive adequate rest. She has interest in pilot programs that provide train crews with regular work schedules and assigned days off.

“The NTSB will make its recommendations in the interest of safety and leave for the regulatory agencies and parties of interest how best to implement the recommendations,” Hersman says. But don’t construe that comment as supporting performance standards–an objective the industry has been seeking. Hersman believes there are areas where performance standards make safety sense — such as allowing carriers greater leeway in installing continuous welded rail — but “pretty narrow and focused regulation” still has a meaningful role in assuring transportation safety.

Hersman advocates a greater role for locomotive cab voice and video recorders. Recently, Norfolk Southern installed cameras and microphones in locomotives to help document actions of train crews preceding vehicle/train crashes. Bowing to crew privacy demands, the cameras look forward from the windshield and the microphones are installed underneath the locomotive floor to record the sounding of whistle and bells.

Hersman prefers cameras that record locomotive gauges and microphones that record crew conversation. Both are of value to accident investigators. Since the 1970s, voice recorders have been used on airline flight decks. The Air Line Pilots Association initially opposed this. Laws are now in place protecting the privacy of audio recordings, and that privacy safeguard could be extended to video recordings, she says.

Although remote control operations are relatively new in the U.S., Hersman is aware of FRA data showing that where remote control is being used–as opposed to conventional switching operations–rail accidents have been reduced by almost 14% and injuries are down by almost 60%. Her initial concern with remote control is “human factor performance. When new operating practices are established, it is especially important that stringent safety procedures be established and that training and oversight be a priority,” she says.

Hersman’s term expires in December 2008.

(The preceding article was published by Railway Age magazine.)