By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. investigative agency said on Tuesday that two New York City area commuter train crashes were the result of engineers with undiagnosed sleep disorders.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) criticized the lack of safety systems in both crashes that could have prevented the incidents blamed on fatigued engineers.
The board said two recent crashes had almost identical probable causes. A New Jersey Transit train crashed in a terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, in September 2016, killing one person and injuring 110. In January, a Long Island Rail Road train crashed at the Atlantic Terminal in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, injuring 108 people.
Both engineers suffered from severe sleep apnea, which is characterized by shallow or interrupted breathing during sleep and can leave sufferers fatigued.
"The traveling public deserves alert operators," said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The trains were speeding and overran the tracks. The NTSB said New Jersey Transit failed "to follow internal guidance and refer at-risk safety sensitive personnel" for sleep disorder screening.
The Obama administration had been considering requiring truck drivers and railroad engineers to be screened for sleep apnea, but the Trump administration scrapped the effort in August. The NTSB said that decision "jeopardizes public safety."
The NTSB has called for years for stricter screening of drivers and engineers for sleep apnea, citing numerous crashes blamed on the disorder.
Aaron Donovan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the parent of LIRR, said "the MTA has an established and aggressive sleep apnea screening and treatment program for all train and bus operators and locomotive engineers in line with the NTSB’s recommendations and we are moving forward with this program, even in the absence of a federal mandate.”
NJ Transit said in a statement Tuesday that NTSB "acknowledged our aggressive sleep apnea screening protocol that mandates all safety sensitive employees who screen positive be immediately pulled from duty."
Since October 2016, the railroad has had a conductor ride in the cab car with the engineer and reduced the speed limit for coming into Hoboken and Atlantic City Terminals from 10 miles per hour to 5 mph. The railroad added it is "developing a technology solution to enforce civil speeds at terminal stations."
In 2014, the NTSB said the driver of a train that derailed in New York City the previous year had an undiagnosed sleep disorder. Four passengers were killed in that accident.
The NTSB wants the Federal Railroad Administration to require intercity passenger railroads to implement technology to stop a train before it reaches the end of the tracks and said that "bumping posts" in terminals are not adequate.
The FRA said it will review the NTSB's recommendations.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said "the Trump administration must immediately reverse course and implement rules on sleep apnea and take swift action on the many safety and oversight shortcomings highlighted by NTSB’s findings."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)