Asleep in the tower — why am I not shocked?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, March 25, 2011

This week, a supervising air traffic controller, working alone, entered into a deep sleep shortly after midnight at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and could not be roused by radio shouts and telephone calls while jetliners landed without his supervision. This event became the lead story in the Washington Post. Railroaders everywhere must have smiled. It’s an occupational hazard most of them have at least witnessed if not participated in.
One recently retired engineer complained to me for years of the shiftless conductors who worked with him. Called out at night, on a territory with a heavy grades that causes coal trains to grind for hours at low speed, his skippers would be snoring before trains got to the yard limit, and if they could help it, remained comatose until the time came to go off duty. I suspect my friend was jealous; alerters in locomotive cabs didn’t give him that luxury.

Today Rollin Bredenberg is a senior executive of BNSF Railway. But once upon a time, in the mid 1960s, he earned his pay as an extra-board brakeman for Southern Pacific, working San Antonio to Del Rio, Texas. Rollin reminded me this week of an experience that I wrote about in Southern Pacific’s Blue Streak Merchandise. He was a green-at-the-gills head-end brakie on First 45, the hot section of the Blue Streak, and his engineer, Peewee Edwards, was racing down the right-of-way west of Spofford at a speed far in excess of the legal 70. Rollin became concerned when their train tore past the place where engineers usually set air for a 50-mph curve. Peewee did nothing. Rollin looked closely. The engineer’s eyes were closed; Peewee was asleep. Probably the fireman was, too.
Now frightened, Rollin fought to maintain his cool. “Hey! How we doin’?” he shouted across the cab. Peewee snapped to attention, realized his predicament, and set the airbrakes to just short of an emergency application, tossing his conductor forward in the caboose.
Now jump ahead to 1972, in Pine Bluff, Ark. Our hero, Mr. Bredenberg, is now the terminal super. There was chaos then every night about 3 a.m., trying to fill out two sections of the St. Louis-Los Angeles Blue Streak Merchandise with hot cars out of Memphis and build a third section to follow those out of town. I’ll just quote from my book:
“Bredenberg bit his nails in the hump tower early one morning as the Streaks neared Pine Bluff. The first hump engine sent 20 cars destined for the BSM fleet through the retarders and pulled back to let the second and third engines hump their priority cars. ‘Then,’ says Bredenberg, ‘the humpmaster told the first engine to resume. Nothing happened. I got this sick feeling. I mean, we had no time to spare. Finally I ran to my car, whipped around to the yard engine, and climbed in.’ The engineer was asleep. Bredenberg awakened him. The hoghead straightened up — and went back to sleep. ‘I poked him again. He got up, walked to the fireman’s side, said, “Why don’t you take over for awhile?” and conked out again.’ Now Bredenberg was in a pickle. To play by the rules meant calling other officers to witness the sleeping engineer, sending him to a hospital to confirm he was derelict rather than ill, and ordering a new engineer to work — all prelude to disciplinary action. Playing by the rules also meant delays to the BSMs. Or Bredenberg could do what the exhausted engineer suggested. He made his decision in an instant. ‘I sat down, whistled for the hump signal, humped all the cars, went into the bowl to couple the tracks, brought the engine to the tieup track, and got off. That’s when his switchmen learned that their terminal superintendent had run the locomotive. I told them, “You guys have 10 minutes to get him awake and straightened up.”’ And what happened to the engineer? Nothing. ‘He still works for us,’ says Bredenberg.”

The annals of railroad fiction are filled with the predicaments caused when third-trick telegraphers at lonely desert depots nodded off and let doomed trains barrel onward toward their demise. Thank goodness for the fictional heroes who always, somehow, saved the day. But I have always believed that the real stories of sleeping railroaders are more fascinating than the ones that the Harry Bedwells composed at their typewriters. For example, go here to reread my blog of last year about the entire Rock Island Lines crew (save one) who fell asleep at a meeting point in Oklahoma and upon waking up, couldn’t decide whether the train they were to meet had actually slipped past them. I won’t give away the ending.

The earliest advice that dispatcher Patrick Flynn (now with BNSF but then with a railroad I shall not name) got about sleeping on the job was this, from a supervisor: "Fall asleep with your head cradled your arms or hands, on the desk top. If they come in and catch you with your head down, try to remember, when they tap you on the shoulder, to clench your joined hands a bit and mumble, 'Amen.'"

And this just in from Bill Neill, now retired and living in the Republic of Conroe, Texas. Bill fired, pounded brass, and dispatched trains for more railroads than I have fingers: “When I was young and chipper between ages 23 and 24 and a fireman on the Great Northern out of Seattle, working 16 consecutive hours on the helpers out of Skykomish, a zombie mindset came rather quickly by the tenth hour of the first day on an assignment and by the fourth day, I was living in the Twilight Zone. The ancient mariners that I worked with varied in their reactions to exhaustion, but I can tell you that when I was running, I was wide awake more out of fear than anything else. Coming down off the Cascades, I'd keep the cab window open and cold air blowing on me. I'd drink coffee now and then. As a dispatcher, I can't begin to tell you how mystifying it is to be wide awake one instant and asleep the next and for maybe 15 to 25 minutes. Waking up was terrifying for me because I knew what I'd done and became fear-struck that something awful had happened during my mental vacation. With all of that being stated, Fred, I wanna meet the railroad employee who never fell asleep while on duty during his or her 40 to 50 years in the business.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lost no time in ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to add a second air-traffic controller to the graveyard shift at Reagan National. A wise idea, sir. In this era of zero tolerance of anything but perfection, FAA will probably throw the book at its Rip Van Winkle. If so, that’s too bad. The poor soul only did what came naturally. — Fred W. Frailey
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