As we all know, fatigue can be one of railroader employees worst enemies. It can lead to mistakes being made, some resulting in minor infractions, or, in the worst case scenario, fatigue can result in a tragedy.
For the first time in a long time, Congress has set the wheels in motion to truly address fatigue. The issue of fatigue mitigation has been on the National Transportation Safety Board's "Most Wanted" list since 1990, and they have recommended in recent committee hearings, that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) be allowed to open up and make adjustments to the antiquated Hours of Service Law based on real science; however, that may not be the best course to truly make a difference on the issue of fatigue. For instance, if the FRA recommended reducing the Hours of Service from 12 to 10 hours, the carriers would be scrambling to comply because they do not have the manpower to adequately staff at the current level because operating crews have dwindled through attrition and cutbacks. If the maximum allowed hours were reduced to 10 hours, there would not be enough crews to handle current traffic, which could increase the potential for fatigue rather than reduce it.
Among the top factors contributing to fatigue is "limbo time," which is the time spent by crew members waiting for a ride to their home or away-from-home terminal following the expiration of a 12-hour tour of duty. The crew is required to stay with the train during this time. The Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that "limbo time" would not count when calculating the number of hours on duty. However, if a crew has been on a train for 20 or more hours, not counting the time prior to going to work, they need more than 8 or 10 hours off duty to get properly rested. Limbo time is probably the easiest factor to fix when it comes to fatigue, simply by eliminating it, and ensuring that crews reach their final release point within the 12 hour tour of duty.
Other contributing factors include incorrect lineup information posted by the Carriers as to when an employee can anticipate going to work; manpower shortages resulting in precious little time off or in declared emergencies, which allow no earned personal time to be taken; and the cumulative effects of working day after day for months on end with no recuperation time.
Extremely strict availability policies, in some cases as high as 95%, also contribute to the feeling that an employee must take every call or face disciplinary action.