Off the Rails: Train Operators and Substance Abuse

Dating back to the 1980s, drug and alcohol abuse by train operators has been at the center of a number of preventable train accidents. A 1987 Conrail crash put the issue in the spotlight, after an investigation revealed traces of marijuana in workers' urine and blood samples. After speeding through three signals, the train Conrail collided with an Amtrak train claiming 16 lives in the process.

Disturbing Amtrak report

While enhanced screening and rehabilitation programs have improved the situation in intervening years, substance abuse in the railroad industry cannot be ignored. This is highlighted by a recent government watchdog investigation that found that Amtrak employees in safety-sensitive positions use drugs and alcohol in numbers that surpass the railroad industry's national average. In fact, mechanics and signal operators employed by Amtrak tested positive for drugs four times more often than other railroads companies' mechanics, with cocaine and marijuana becoming increasingly problematic.

The report concluded that Amtrak's testing policy fails to adequately control drug and alcohol use by its employees. More disturbing than this, however, was the investigation's conclusion that Amtrak management was largely unaware of the problem prior to the report. In response, Amtrak management agreed to introduce new recommended policies, including increasing the rate of drug and alcohol tests and reviewing testing data regularly.

False results

While random alcohol and drug tests have been used to identify a number of train employees high or drunk on the job before they could injure others or themselves, there have been cases in which train workers were falsely accused of being high or drunk. In perhaps the most tragic example, three railroad workers who died in a Minnesota train collision were falsely accused of being drunk on the job based on faulty post-mortem testing. After new, more effective testing was performed, the reputations of the deceased workers were restored.

Both the victims of train accidents caused by operation under the influence and those falsely accused of this infraction should seek legal counsel. Only attorneys highly trained in handling railroad cases are capable of analyzing the unique facts involved in such cases.

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