Human factors and safe travel

WHEN we speak of ``pride of workmanship'' nowadays - usually to bemoan its scarcity - the images in mind may be of a carpenter who can hang a door just right, even in an older building that has settled into angles not quite true; of a baker who can make a perfect piecrust from a recipe she has carried in her head for years; or of a mechanic who can tune a venerable jalopy into harmony with the highway. Less often do we think of railroad engineers taking pride in getting passengers and freight to their destinations on time. Which is too bad.

As the inquiry into the Jan. 4 Amtrak-Conrail crash proceeds, the public is reminded how more and more confidence is being placed in fail-safes, in automatic devices, and less and less in the reliability of ``human factors'' - or people, to say it in plain English.

The Federal Railroad Administration is taking justifiable pride in its new accident-assessment techniques, including ``black box'' recorders like those on aircraft. But the main revelations so far have been that both trains were speeding, that drug tests indicated marijuana use by one of the engineers and a brakeman, and that at least one safety device was tampered with - nothing, in short, that casual observers could not have conjectured from their armchairs.

And Amtrak chairman Graham B. Claytor told Congress this week that the Conrail crew crashed through six standard operating procedures - any one of which could have prevented the accident.

Still, the calls are for more automatic braking systems to stop trains when their engineers should but don't, and even for the elimination of freight trains from the Northeast Corridor. In other words, public expectations about the standards to which employees can be reasonably held continue to fall, and expensive, restrictive solutions to rail safety problems are sought in machines and ``systems'' instead of human beings.

But transportation can no more run on automatic pilot than can any other human activity. There is no substitute for alertness, for intelligent attention to the business at hand.

Of course, automatic safety devices are important, even if they cost lots of money. But rail crews owe it to the public to take responsibility for doing their jobs right - and they owe it to themselves.

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