[Railroad union president Anthony] Bottalico said [engineer William] Rockefeller "never said anything about not getting enough sleep." But he said the engineer had switched just weeks earlier from the night shift to the day shift, "so he did have a change in his hours and his circadian rhythms with regard to sleep."Changes in working hours, which are more frequent for freight train crews, and the concomitant disruption of crew rest, have long been contested between the unions and railroad management. There's also the possibility that habit is the quickest way to get yourself killed on the railroad, and coverage of the derailment has raised the possibility of the engineer having a lapse of concentration akin either to nodding off at the wheel, or to highway hypnosis.
One reason railroad engineers have to qualify, with repeated trips, on a line before being entrusted with a train is to develop a muscle memory for the challenges of running the route. As a retired interurban motorman once explained, an experienced motorman gets into a rhythm: when to add power or apply brakes, when to look for a signal, when to sound the horn for the crossing. It's thus anomalous for an experienced operator to go into a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. That is, unless the operator's internal clock has been recently reset.