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Schumer Wants LIRR, Not Just Metro-North, To Screen Engineers For Sleep Apnea

MINEOLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Commuters, politicians and watchdogs Friday evening were demanding that the Long Island Rail Road – the busiest commuter railroad in the nation – begin testing its locomotive engineers for sleep disorders.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was among those calling for a policy in which train operators would be tested for sleep apnea. Such a policy is already in place on the Metro-North Railroad following the fatal derailment near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx in December 2013, involving an engineer who had an undiagnosed case of the disorder.

But Schumer said applying the policy to the Metro-North is not enough, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should quickly expand its screening program to the LIRR, Schumer said.

"The vast and overwhelming majority of engineers on the Long Island Rail Road trains are great, they're well-trained, but this is an illness and it ought to be done," Schumer said. "Just like you test people for drugs and test people for other kinds of problems you ought to test them for sleep apnea."

As CBS2's Jennifer McLogan reported, those who suffer from sleep apnea say it could be dangerous for such activities as driving a train.

"I have sleep apnea," said LIRR commuter John Smith. "I could fall asleep at a moment's notice – you could just nod off."

The Dec. 1, 2013 derailment on the Metro-North killed four people. An investigation determined it was caused by engineer William Rockefeller's sleepiness and his undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.

"It doesn't take an Albert Einstein to understand why engineers should be tested for sleep apnea, a disorder that causes them fall asleep on the job," Schumer said.

Following a deadly MBTA crash in Boston in 2008 involving an operator suffering from sleep apnea, and again after the Bronx Metro-North accident, the National Transportation Safety Board called for immediate screening and treating of all operators.

Last month, the MTA agreed to begin testing its 410 engineers on the Metro-North for the disorder, but not the LIRR. Schumer was calling for application of the policy to the other major commuter railroad along with the LIRR Commuter Council, and passengers who are also demanding equal protection.

"If you're on the train, you have a chauffeur, but you know, the chauffeur should be awake," said LIRR commuter Harvey Garrett.

"We cannot wait for the Long Island Rail Road to experience its first tragedy before we get these rails to the highest level of safety," Schumer warned.

CBS2 visited experts at the Sleep Disorders Center at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, where patients who can fall asleep unexpectedly are treated.

"If you nod off when you're driving down the highway; if you nod off while you're driving a train, it is a big deal," said center director Dr. Michael Weinstein. "So in 2, 3 seconds of what we sometimes call a micro-sleep, there can be devastating complications."

Commuters agreed that testing for such a disorder is crucial.

"It's very important to have them checked and monitored because of our safety on the trains," said LIRR commuter Jason McNary.

Elizabeth Kardos said she herself started to develop sleep problems from working all different shifts. At the time of the Bronx Metro-North derailment, engineer Rockefeller had recently been moved off the night shift onto mornings.

"I think it is good to test, but I don't know about the costs," Kardos said.

Some had a message for the MTA, asking them to implement testing but not to pass along costs with higher ticket prices.

In a statement, the MTA said the results of the Metro-North sleep testing program will help the agency develop a program at the LIRR. Metro-North, LIRR and New York City Transit "are working together to develop the most effective sleep apnea program," the LIRR said.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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