Dept. of Transportation proposes strict new drug testing policy for railroad workers


Operating under the Department of Transportation since its inception in 1966, the Federal Railroad Administration’s stated mission is to “enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods for a strong America, now and in the future”.
Since 1986, the FRA has been federally mandated to perform drug and alcohol tests on railroad employees. These tests include pre-employment screening, random and/or “reasonable suspicion” testing, and post-accident tests. Traditionally, the testing excluded what the railroads refer to as “maintenance-of-way employees”, those whose job it is to service the tracks and infrastructure.
But facing increasing pressure from Congress in the nation’s capital, the FRA has proposed an expansion of its drug testing to include all employees, and even independent contractors and volunteers.

As it stands now, only certain incidents lead to mandatory drug testing of any employees involved – such as any accident that results in injury. However, the current set of regulations allows for a certain amount of judgment.
For example, if an accident occurs on a grade crossing, historically the operator of the train would be exempt from mandatory drug testing due to the fact that they likely would not have been able to stop in time regardless of sobriety level.
The newly proposed rules would change that. If implemented as written, drug testing would become mandatory after any grade crossing accident in which human error was to blame or where a railroad employee is killed.
A grade crossing occurs anywhere that railroad tracks cross over a street or sidewalk at the exact same level – or grade – as the surface of the roadway. The FRA acknowledges that there are over 38,000 such crossings in America, and they also acknowledge how dangerous these grade crossings are. By their own estimates, an average of 270 people meet their demise every year at grade crossings.
The push for the strict new regulations comes after sensationalized reports about drug use in the system have popped up over the past several years.
In 2007, a railroad maintenance crew foreman was found to have weed in his system when a passenger train plowed into the service vehicle that he and his crew were in. Two were killed and two were seriously injured, and the subsequent report claimed that the now-dead foreman had “probably used marijuana within a few hours of his death”.
Maybe he did toke up a couple hours earlier. Maybe he had a joint in his mouth when the locomotive annihilated the vehicle he was in. But there is no post-mortem test that would determine an exact window of when he last smoked weed, and it’s highly unlikely that he would have stopped the speeding train with his sobriety alone.
In 2012, an independent federal investigator found that Amtrak employees were failing drug tests at increasing rates. Amtrak’s mechanics and signal operators were found to be four times more likely to be baked than those working for competing railroads.
But the debate really began in 1987 in Chase, Maryland, when an engineer ran through several signals and smashed his train into an Amtrak train, killing 16 and injuring 147 others. The man was found to have weed in his system, which in Reagan’s 1987, was enough to change policies industry-wide.
The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of railroad related fatalities each year in this country can be chalked up more to vagrancy than inebriation. Homeless people trespassing on the tracks are common casualties on the rails.
Maybe we should outlaw homelessness, because every 180 minutes someone in America gets hit by a train, yet in 5,000 years and counting, not one person has ever died from marijuana.