Many people were shocked when officials discovered that the engineer involved in the April 2016 Amtrak train accident in Chester, Pennsylvania, tested positive for drug use. Perhaps more shocking, both the operator of the backhoe the train struck and his supervisor also had drugs in their system at the time of the collision.
Democrats who sit on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee turned that shock into fuel as they urged the U.S. Transportation Secretary to finalize a stalled ruling that would see four opioid prescription drugs added to the drug testing for certain transportation workers.
Lawmakers Want Testing for Opioid Use in Transportation Workers
Democrats from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee want U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to ensure that a rule requiring the testing of the prescription opioids hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and oxycodone will finally go into effect. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) currently does not test for prescription opioids, but, instead, looks for drugs like marijuana, cocaine and PCP.
Seven Democrats who sit on the panel sent the letter to Chao on October 10, 2017, and pointed to the 2016 Chester Amtrak derailment as an example of the dangers that arise when the nation’s increasing opioid use is not acknowledged in the transportation sector.
The letter goes on to say that while the DOT issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on January 23, 2017, regarding the increased drug testing, little progress has been made since.
“We strongly urge you to take action now to finalize this rulemaking as a first step toward addressing the opioid crisis,” the letter concludes.
Three Employees Involved in Chester Amtrak Derailment Tested Positive for Drugs
The Amtrak derailment cited in the letter to Chao occurred on April 3, 2016, not far from Chester, Pennsylvania. An Amtrak maintenance crew was operating a backhoe on the tracks and conducting scheduled maintenance when they were hit by Amtrak train 89.
Two of the workers with the maintenance crew died in the collision, and 41 of the 344 people onboard the train were hospitalized for their injuries, which were caused by the debris of the backhoe slamming into the passenger cars. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) toxicology reports for the train engineer, who survived the crash, and the two Amtrak workers killed on the tracks showed that all three individuals had at least one drug in their system.
Forty-eight-year-old Alexander Hunter, who was operating the train, tested positive for marijuana, as well as opiates, but the opiate result was later determined to be due to the morphine he had received after the crash. Joseph Carter, Jr., the 61-year-old man who was operating the backhoe, tested positive for cocaine, and 59-year-old Peter John Adamovich, Carter’s supervisor, tested positive for oxycodone, codeine and morphine.
The NTSB has not said that they believe the accident was caused by the drug use of the three men, but they continue to investigate the Chester Amtrak derailment.
Positive Drug Tests in Rail Workers Have More Than Doubled in Recent Years
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data from train accidents in 2016 showed disturbingly high numbers of positive drug tests after incidents, with 4.2 percent of railroad employees testing positive for drug use after an accident. This was up from 2.9 percent in 2015, and a staggering increase from 2011, when just 0.5 percent of employees tested positive.
The last time the U.S. has seen accident-related drug use rates that high was in the late 80s, right before the FRA began to strengthen their drug testing standards. That move was spurred, in part, by the January 4, 1987, collision between an Amtrak train and two Conrail trains in Maryland that officials determined was caused by marijuana use by the Conrail crew, who did not stop at a red light. Sixteen people died in the crash.
FRA data also shows a 19 percent increase in positive drug results in random drug testing between 2014 and 2015.
Opioid Use Drastically on the Rise in America
The amount of opioids sold legally in the United States has almost quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many of the opioids sold are likely being abused, as the CDC says that Americans, on the whole, reported no more pain in that period than in the period before it.
In 2016, According to the CDC, 11.8 million people across the country abused opioids, which include both prescription opiates and heroin. An average of 91 people per day currently dies from opioid overdoses.
It’s easy to see how this widespread abuse throughout America has found its way into the transportation industry, in not only railroad employees, but also other industries such as trucking. With usage continuing to rise, further harm could await train travelers unless rules and safety regulations are implemented that expand drug tests to include this increasingly common category of drugs.