I-Team: Engineer in Metro-North Train Derailment Clocked Loads of Overtime

Payroll records reviewed by the I-Team show the engineer of the Metro-North train that derailed last month, killing four people and injuring dozens more, worked a consistently demanding overtime schedule in years leading up to last month’s fatal derailment.  

According to the data, provided by the MTA in response to public records requests by the I-Team, William Rockefeller worked an average of 762 overtime hours per year in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Assuming a 40-hour work week with eight-hour shifts, that's the equivalent of working a sixth day every week for three years straight.

After learning of the heavy overtime load, some train passengers and lawmakers along the Metro-North line were surprised by the reliance on overtime scheduling at the commuter rail service.

"Certainly the statistics you just mentioned about Bill Rockefeller are shocking," said U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel,  a Democrat who represents the Bronx district where the train derailed.

“To hear that he’s working a six-day week every year for however many years, it is absolutely concerning,” said passenger Max Owen-Dunow.

The I-Team examined payroll records, not only for Rockefeller, but also for 20 of the highest paid Metro-North engineers in 2010, 2011 and 2012.  Among them was a train operator who worked 1,183 overtime hours in 2011. That works out to an average of 23 hours of overtime every week. Another top overtime earner was made about $71,000 in overtime on top of $98,000 in regular pay in 2011. That works out to 1,222 overtime hours in a single year. 

Assuming eight-hour shifts and a 40-hour work week, that’s the equivalent of working, as The Beatles said, “eight days a week.”

The I-Team requested to review overtime data for all of Metro-North’s more than 300 locomotive engineers, but MTA officials said it was not possible to provide that data in time for this report.

According to data obtained by Newsday, the average Metro-North engineer earned just over $23,000 in overtime pay in 2012. Rockefeller earned almost $45,000.

Union rules allow the most senior Metro-North train operators to have first claim on any available overtime hours. That can lead to a handful of veteran engineers working extreme loads of overtime, while many others have relatively few extra shifts. 

Engel said he will ask the federal government to give recommendations on reforming overtime rules for train operators.

“It may be that people will have to be hired, because obviously if there are shifts people are working -- all kinds of hours, day-in, day-out, month-in, month-out, year-in, year-out – it’s not good for anybody,” Engel said.

Adam Lisberg, an MTA spokesman, said seemingly high overtime totals can be deceiving because some engineers work 12-hour shifts and have lengthy periods of what is known as “swing time” in the middle of those shifts.

“In many cases a shift that is built to have a certain number of overtime hours doesn’t mean that you’re spending 12 straight hours staring out the front window of a train having to be on high alert.  It can often mean you take a run in the morning and then you have several hours off during the middle of the day,” Lisberg said.  

The MTA spokesman also stressed that Metro-North fully complies with hours of service rules enforced by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Those rules establish minimum requirements for time off between engineer shifts, but they do not set limits on the cumulative overtime hours a train operator can work per month or year.

Michael Doyle, chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the union representing locomotive engineers, told the I-Team that federal regulations were recently updated and "have protected the riding public against overtime-related fatigue for generations."

Most of Rockefeller’s overtime in 2010, 2011 and 2012 accrued while he worked an overnight shift. On the morning his train derailed, his shift began at 5 a.m., but Rockefeller reportedly awoke at 3:30 a.m. in order to make it to work on time. 

Dr. Michael Thorpy, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center, says heavy overtime schedules carry greater risks when they are worked by employees who start their shifts before 6 a.m. or after 4 p.m.

“There is a very strong sleep drive between 3 and 4 in the morning, and if the person is working at that time -- when they would normally be sleeping at that time -- they are going to be extremely sleepy and it will be much harder for them to maintain full alertness,” Thorpy said.

Preliminary statements from investigators, union officials and from Rockefeller’s attorney have suggested the engineer got a full eight hours of sleep the night before the accident and that he did not fall asleep at the train controls. Rather, the train operator is said to have lost concentration, failing to hit the breaks as his train approached a reduced-speed zone north of the Spuyten Duyvil station.

Rockefeller has not responded to the I-Team’s request for comment.

A 2005 University of Massachusetts study of more than 10,000 American work schedules found jobs that include scheduled overtime are associated with a 61 percent higher rate of injuries and accidents than jobs with standard 40-hour work weeks.   

Lisberg said Metro-North updates a Fatigue Mitigation Plan every two years in order to discover and discontinue assignments that carry higher risks of employees falling asleep or losing concentration. 

“Don’t make the assumption that because someone is making several overtime hours per day that it means they are getting fatigued at any point during the work day,” Lisberg said. 

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