An article yesterday stated incorrectly that drinking produces 45,000 accidents a year in the railroad industry. Actually, nobody knows the exact figure but it is far less, since there were only 4,239 reported accidents involving damage in 1978 from all causes. The study on which the article was based said 1,200 injuries in 1978 resulted from alcohol and that alcohol-related accidents involving damage were seen about 45,000 times by railroad workers in 1978. However, the 45,000 figure is the total number of times workers sighted accidents and includes occasions on which the same accident was seen by large numbers of workers. If 100 workers saw the same accident, that is counted as 100 sightings.
Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones, you should watch your speed. -- The Grateful Dead
Last Oct. 1, a ConRail freight train near Royersford, Pa., roared past stop signals and flag warnings and crashed into the rear of another ConRail train stopped on the tracks. The engineer and conductor on the lead locomotive unit were killed. Damage was estimated at $562,000.
One factor in the crash, according to a government investigation, was that one of the operators was under the influence of marijuana.
Only a few months earlier, on July 24, the Southern Pacific's "Blue Streak" freight train ploughed into the rear of another train at Thousand Palms, Calif., causing a fire that killed the engineer. A brakeman and conductor were injured, and three locomotives, eight boxcars and a caboose were destroyed at a loss of nearly $1.5 million.
The national Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, determined that the probable cause was "the failure of the engineer, whose performance was significantly impaired by alcohol, to stop his train as required" by stop signals.
Six years earlier, two freight trains crashed at Indio, Calif., killing an engineer and head brakeman and doing $1.6 million in damage. The NTSB said the rear train "was being operated at excessive speed by an engineer under the influence of alcohol."
The incidents illustrate a problem of increasing concern to the government, the railroads and rail unions:
Casey Jones, tooling down the track high up in his locomotive, may be high on liquor, marijuana or amphetamines.
A recent major study of the rail workforce concluded that 20 percent of employes are drunk when they arrive at work or get drunk there at least once a year -- compared with only 1.5 percent of adult males in general in the national workforce.
Timothy Manello of University Research Corp., who conducted the government-financed study, said the railroads are the only industry that has ever been studied that way, and he suspects high drunkneness figures might also show up for other industries with all-male workforces. But for drinking and using drugs while working on the railroad, and in the halfday or so before going on duty.
And it wants some systematic method of identify "an employe who has been using intoxicants or drugs and who should not be allowed to assume a tour of duty."
It first proposed a federal regulation six years ago, after the Indio crash.
However, both the rail unions and the railroads oppose a federal regulation and the FRA has not issued one.
"You can't run around a railroad all day long with breathalyzers," said Daniel W. Collins, assistant general secretary and treasurer of the 265,000-member United Transportation Union, the largest rail union.
Collins, in a telephone interview from Cleveland, said railroads already have regulations barring drinking and drug use on the job, and the offender can be dismissed on first offense.
But a rule is hard to enforce when a handful of men is rolling a giant train hundreds of miles in open country where no supervisors are on hand to watch them constantly. And workers who witness violations are reluctant to turn in their fellows for fear they'll be fired.
Collins said both the roads and the unions have found that rehabilitation programs designed to put offenders into family counseling and anti-intoxication programs are actually much more effective than discipline and dismissal threats.
Of course, said Collins, existing rules against drinking and drug use should be kept in effect and enforced where possible, but new federal regulation on top of those rules would produce little.
"You get more bang for a buck out of rehabilitiation than in trying to enforce a rule that doesn't work anyhow," he declared, asserting that 42 railroads (with about 85 percent of the railroad workforce) have adopted rehabilitiation programs.
The NTSB isn't buying this approach as the sole answer and recently repeated its demand that the FRA impose regulation.
However, Daniel M. Collins, son of the labor union official and a high official of the FRA, and FRA doesn't favor regulation.
"We think the rehabilitation approach is more effective," he said. A regulatory crackdown, he said, would probably produce only "a lot of cover-up" of drinking and drug violations by workers reluctant to turn in their compatriots.
The studies conducted by Manello and financed by the FRA are, by all accounts, the most comprehensive look at drinking practices (drugs weren't covered but there may be a follow-up) ever done in any segment of the labor force.
Seven major railroads with 234,000 of the nation's 450,000 to 500,000 rail workers agreed to participate and subject officials and workers to a massive series of interviews and statistical analyses from company records. They included ConRail, Burlington Northern, Southern Pacific, Long Island Railroad, Illinois Central Gulf, Seaboard Coast Line and Duluth, Mesabe and Iron Range.
Here is what Manello and his associates found:
Although only about 18 percent to 19 percent of American males in general get drunk (at home, work or elsewhere) at least once a year, about 150,000 of the 234,000 rail workers got drunk at least once yearly -- 64 percent.
Although only 1.5 percent of American males in general are "high" or "tight" on the job at least once a year, about 5 percent of rail workers either arrive at work "very drunk" or get "very drunk" after arrival -- and that 15 percent either come to work "a little drunk" or get "a little drunk" once they arrive.
About one in eight actually drinks on duty at least once a year.
All told, it is estimated that in 1978 there were 174,000 violations of the rule against drinking while on the job or while subject to call, but only 900 were reported by other workers and investigated, and only 384 dismissals resulted. Although at least 80,000 workers observed violations, they didn't report the violators because they didn't want to put them in jeopardy of being fired.
The study also showed that drinking appeared to be heavily related to accidents. It concluded that drinking produced thousands of injuries to workers and coworkers, at least 45,000 accidents involving property damage and a number of major wrecks such as those at Thousand Palms and Indio over the years, as well as several dozen minor ones.
"Many [supervisors] mentioned incidents they had seen: two train derailments, smashing into a company railroad car while driving a company automobile, ruining the transmission on a company truck by shifting gears without depressing the clutch and ruining materials and equipment in shops."
And told, the study estimated that in 1978, economic losses due to drinking totaled at least $109 million and probably much more.
Manello said he didn't think the degree of drinking in railroading was necessarily much higher than in other all-male industries (men drink more than women) with people of similar education and work.
He said factors in the drinking seem to be low supervision (because trains are out there by themselves among other things), boredom and isolation.
But he added his suspicion that some other industries are "probably as bad" is based on anecdotal evidence and a similar in-depth study would be needed before that could be certain. "I'd love to do a look at Congress and the newspaper business, for example," he said.