Sleep Apnea? Defective Brakes? What Really Caused the Hoboken Train Crash?

Photo of injured manIn the wake of the devastating September 29 Hoboken train crash that killed one and injured 114, families are still wondering what exactly went wrong. In recent days, investigators and attorneys have pointed to two possible factors that may have led to the crash. These are the train operator’s undiagnosed sleep apnea and defects in the train itself.

Sleep apnea is a condition that causes sufferers to awaken frequently throughout the night, due to the spontaneous closing of their airways. Unable to breathe, their bodies wake up to correct the issue. This disturbance of restful sleep can cause dangerous daytime drowsiness. This may have been a factor that prevented the engineer from braking before the train slammed into Hoboken Terminal. Undiagnosed sleep apnea leading to train accidents is not unprecedented. In fact, the crash of a commuter train in New York City in 2013 was found to have been linked to an engineer’s undiagnosed sleep apnea.

However, other investigators are considering the possibility that there were problems with the train itself that were not addressed. In January 2016, an inspection of the train revealed that the hand brake gear pin had been worn out. It was repaired, but three months later, inspectors found 14 more defects on the train, including damage to the brakes. Another month passed, and another hand brake pin wore out.

NJ Transit spokespeople have said that the previous defects were discovered and repaired as part of routine maintenance, and that those repairs were no indication that the brakes were faulty during the train’s crash. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) performed a reconstruction of the accident and found that the braking system responded normally.

Could PTC Have Prevented the Hoboken Train Crash?

Investigators are also examining this crash to determine if positive train control systems (PTC) could have prevented the accident. Congress voted for a requirement for all trains to have PTC installed by the end of 2015. However, they extended the deadline to 2018 to avoid shutting down the nation’s rails. PTC is a failsafe that activates if the engineer fails to slow down on approach to the train station. Had New Jersey Transit upgraded its trains with PTC systems by the original deadline, it is possible that the Hoboken crash would not have occurred, sparing hundreds from personal injury and death.

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