By Alex Binkley

Fatigued flight, railway and ship crews are a long-standing concern of the Transportation Safety Board and it hasn’t seen enough improvement on the issue to remove it from its watchlist of safety concerns. Board Chair Kathy Fox told a news conference fatigue has been an issue in more than 90 investigations since the TSB was created in 1990. The Board routinely investigates if fatigue was a factor in transportation accidents or incidents, and if it was, it examines whether the operator had measures in place to prevent operations with tired workers.

Fatigue is pervasive “in a 24/7 industry like transportation, where rail, marine, and flight crews can work long and irregular schedules — sometimes in challenging conditions or across multiple time zones,” she said. “That, in turn, means crews don’t always get enough restorative sleep, which can impair human performance. To fix this, there needs to be a profound change in attitudes and behaviours, both at the management and operational levels,” she said. “That means taking steps such as: awareness training; fatigue-management plans; modernizing duty-time regulations for train crews, marine watchkeepers, and pilots; and making sure that, in general, work-rest rules are based on science — and not just the way things have always been done.”

Almost 20 years ago, TSB issued a railway safety concern about irregular work scheduling, extended duty times and the need for regulations to deal with fatigue. It’s still waiting for action from Transport Canada. “There’s still no real sense of urgency in coming up with a plan.”

Based on its observations of the rail industry, TSB expanded its fatigue checks to the airline and marine sectors and found they had problems as well, Fox said. She criticized Transport Canada for the laggardly pace of action on dealing with the TSB’s safety recommendations. “There are dozens of TSB recommendations that have been active for over a decade without a fully satisfactory response.”

While the Transport Minister has directed the department to identify areas where matters could be accelerated, “progress has been limited,” she said. “Transport Canada has missed repeated deadlines in responding to the TSB, and we have yet to see improvements in the underlying interdepartmental processes required to put our recommendations into effect. What was supposed to be expedited has instead gone almost nowhere.”

While the Department has dealt with a few of the TSB safety recommendations, “promising action is not the same as delivering it. Especially when the plain truth is that inaction can cost lives,” she said. More than 60 TSB recommendations are still outstanding after a decade, a third of which are more than 20 years old.

TSB Board member Faye Ackermans, a former CP Rail manager, said that three items have been removed from the watchlist since 2016—the transportation of flammable liquids by rail, the requirement for onboard voice and video recorders in main-track locomotives and, in aviation, the issue of unstable approaches that are not aborted.

Safety recommendations that still need attention include “runway overruns, and the risk of collisions, which continue to occur at Canadian airports, railway signals that aren’t consistently followed, thus posing a risk of serious train collisions or derailments, and the way in which some transportation companies fail to manage their safety risks, and how oversight by Transport Canada is not always effective,” she said. Sometimes government and industry “have taken steps toward fixing a problem. Just not enough to take it off the watchlist.”

Between 2008 and 2017, there were an annual average of 33 occurrences in which a train crew didn’t respond to a trackside signal to stop or slow down, she said. TSB intends to keep this issue on the watchlist until “Transport Canada requires that railways implement additional physical safety defences to ensure that signal indications governing operating speed and operating limits are consistently recognized and followed.”

Another fatigue example cited by Fox was the October 2016 grounding of the tug Nathan E. Stewart and a barge off on the B.C. Coast. The Board found the watchkeeper on the tug was alone, had fallen asleep and missed a course change.

In response, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said “the hard work done by Transport Canada has resulted in good progress on many fronts since the last edition in the previous watchlist in 2016. “Transport Canada continuously examines existing fatigue management requirements to determine if amendments are required to update the regime and works in partnership with key federal partners and stakeholders in developing any options,” he said. The Department will propose new pilot fatigue rules to make air travel safer for Canadians by the end of the year and has published a Notice of Intent for amending current hours of work requirements and developing regulations that reflect up-to-date science on managing fatigue in the rail industry. He didn’t say when they might be in force.