Train accidents often occur because of fatigue. That’s why modern trains have mechanisms that will engage if a crew member falls asleep at the controls. But even with these safety measures, fatigue is a significant problem for thousands of engineers, brake operators and conductors who guide freight trains across the country every day. The Macdona accident was a tragic reminder of the risks involved for this crew, who must contend with long shifts that can push them past their bodies’ natural circadian rhythm and into a state of constant jet lag. The 98-year old federal Hours of Service Act permits engineers, brake operators and conductors to work 432 hours a month -- which doesn’t leave much time for commuting, family obligations or adequate sleep.
While it is true that a passenger train has an engineer and conductor, many other people are on board, including cooks, waiters, porters and others. The train may also have sleeping cars or a crew dorm car. A railroad conductor’s job is to keep the train safe, couple and uncouple cars and check the train for problems. They are responsible for radio communication and lining switches.
The engineer does not sleep on the train and is not allowed to unless the train is at a station and it is their shift change. After the engineer has worked their 12 hours they are tied down, and a dog catch crew is called to take them back to their home terminal in either a truck or to a motel.