Number of U.S. railroad workers testing positive for drug use skyrockets

Vintage rail poster

Early this year, a railroad worker who had just been briefed on his duties for the day was discovered in a restroom, dead from an overdose of illegal prescription drugs. In the months that followed, tests conducted after three railroad accidents resulted in six employees testing positive for drugs.

Testing in 2016 has shown that nearly 8 percent of workers involved in rail accidents were positive for drug use, including marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, benzodiazepine, OxyContin and morphine, according to internal federal documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The number of post-accident drug-positives was the highest since the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) began keeping records in 1987 and three times greater than it was 10 years ago.

Overall, the number of railway workers – including engineers, train crew and dispatchers – who tested positive for drug use in random tests soared about 43 percent last year, the documents show. The number rose to 256 last year from 2014’s figure.

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After rail accidents in 2014, no one tested positive for drugs, and just two people did last year. With more than three months left in this year, 16 rail workers have shown positive in post-accident tests.

Railroads transported 565 million passengers and 14.2 million carloads of freight last year. Their workers rank among the most heavily drug-tested employees in the country, faced with drug screening before they are hired, random on-the-job testing and another round of testing every time they make a significant mistake.

But after several years in which heroin and illegal opioid use has increased in the general population, there is hard evidence that the use of those and other drugs may be on the rise in the railroad industry.

Faced with the initial positive test results, federal regulators began sounding an alarm this spring. This month, the heads of all of the nation’s freight and passenger rail lines were summoned to Washington for a closed-door session to deal with a crisis that federal officials fear has put workers and train travelers at risk.

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Officials from the FRA, National Transportation Safety Board and the Office of National Drug Control Policy spelled out their concerns and asked the railroads to help them address the growing problem.

This week they had a similar private session with railroad unions.

“We’ve discussed in depth the kind of data that we are seeing, the uptick in positive post-accident tests, the significant rise in positives in our random testing pool,” FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg said in remarks prepared for the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee on Thursday. “We are seeing a trend going in the wrong direction, and we must address it immediately.”

The popularity of illegal prescription drugs and heroin has increased dramatically in recent years, with some analysts suggesting that efforts to crack down on illegal prescriptions have encouraged addicts to use heroin instead.

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A record 28,647 people died from heroin and prescription opioid use in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and opioids caused more than 6 in 10 overdose fatalities. The CDC said deaths by powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rose by more than 80 percent. Overall, 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in 2014, the CDC said.

Despite drug testing protocols, transportation workers are as susceptible to trends as the rest of society. The U.S. Department of Transportation drug-tests about 7 million people who hold commercial driver’s licenses, as well as railroad and transit workers, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the past five years, the DOT tests have shown sharp increases in use of amphetamines and natural opiates.

Among the railroad workers subject to random testing, however, the about 50,000 tests each year had shown no appreciable increase since 2009. Then they shot up by 43 percent last year. What’s more, the number of railroad workers found to be using drugs in the aftermath of rail accidents jumped dramatically this year.

“We know that the country is struggling with an opioid epidemic – and there is no reason why our industry would be immune from an epidemic affecting the entire country,” Feinberg said. “Workers who are struggling with addiction need, and deserve, our help. Workers who are intoxicated on the job are a danger to themselves, other workers, passengers, and anyone else who may cross paths with a train.”

Among the about 25,000 railroad workers who repair train engines and rail cars, FRA testing found that alcohol use was five times higher than that of railway workers who performed other tasks.

Railroad drug testing is limited to about 120,000 workers who are considered “safety sensitive” – those whose performance puts lives at risk. The train-repair workers and about 70 percent of the 37,000 workers who maintain track beds and railroad right-of-ways are not required to undergo the same drug testing.

Alarmed by the overall increase in drug use, Feinberg in May finalized a new rule that would require “maintenance of way workers,” as the track workers are known, to undergo the same random drug testing as other workers.

The railroads, however, are resisting the proposed rule, which is scheduled to take effect April 1. They have petitioned to delay the testing for an additional 14 months, contending it will require “training supervisors on the signs and symptoms” of drug use.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), which joined regional railroads, railroad construction and transit firms in petitioning for the extension, said the freight railroads it represents would meet the April 1 deadline for testing maintenance workers it employs.

“This is an issue that is evident throughout today’s society that requires attention, and the freight rail industry is ready to work with the FRA to further enhance the safety of the nation’s rail network,” AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

“Freight railroads not only comply with federally mandated drug and alcohol testing regulations, but go beyond those measures with stringent railroad-specific programs,” Greenberg said. “That said, the freight rail industry recognizes the seriousness of this situation and will work together with the FRA to make the rail system even safer, including supporting the expansion of testing to include items such as synthetic opioids.”

Officials said Feinberg views any delay in implementing the rule as unacceptable.

The FRA and the railroads it regulates have been in the forefront of drug testing since 1987, when an Amtrak train collided with three Conrail freight locomotives linked together just north of Baltimore.

The engineer and 15 others on the Amtrak train were killed; 174 other people on the trains were injured.

Investigators determined that the engineer of the Conrail train and his brakeman had shared a marijuana joint as they made their way from the rail yard. The engineer, Ricky Lynn Gates, was convicted on state and federal charges and served four years in prison. In 1993, he told the Baltimore Sun that smoking marijuana was the cause of the crash and that it was not the first time he had done it on the job.

The FRA moved quickly in the aftermath of the crash to implement a drug-testing program for railroad workers. Less than four years later, Congress took the next step, requiring drug testing for “safety sensitive” workers in all industries regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.