Federal Railroad Administrator Robert W. Blanchette is putting the finishing touches on the first federal rules to control alcohol and drug abuse by engineers, brakemen and other key railroad employes.
The regulation, which Blanchette said will be published soon in the Federal Register, comes after a series of meetings between railroad management and labor representatives, who were told by Blanchette either to agree on a proposal that he could support or to expect one from him without their guidance.
The rule he will propose, Blanchette said, "is very close to being consensual," exactly the result he first sought in a speech last June when he told the industry that federal intervention was inevitable if improvements were not made in alcohol and drug abuse among railroad employes.
His call was punctuated in September by a spectacular derailment in Livingston, La., that resulted in explosions, fires, the evacuation of 3,000 people for two weeks and the continuing closure of a railroad line and a major highway.
An Illinois Central Gulf railroad office clerk has testified in a sworn deposition to the National Transportation Safety Board that the engineer and brakemen had been drinking and that she was operating the train at the time of the accident. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers contends that tapes of radio conversations indicate that the engineer was sober.
Industry critics and the safety board are certain to scrutinize Blanchette's rule carefully to see if they think it goes far enough. For years, the safety board has been recommending that railroad engineers be subject to rules similar to the restrictions the Federal Aviation Administration places on pilots, including a ban on drinking in the eight hours preceding a flight.
Blanchette, while speaking strongly about the need to attack the problem, also has been seeking a rule that has a reasonable chance of being obeyed and reducing alcohol and drug abuse.
That is the reason he invited the Railway Labor Executives Association, which represents most railway labor unions, and the Association of American Railroads, which represents most railroad companies, to see if they could find common ground. A rule recommended by that group, Blanchette said in a recent interview, "is probably realistic and probably can be done within a realistic time frame."
The railroads have their own no-drinking rules, known universally as Rule G.
"Rule G is as old as Casey Jones, who was probably drunk at the time" he had his famous accident, said Blanchette. "The problem with Rule G is that it can become overkill. In other words, Rule G permits very little flexibility. It says, 'If thou art found drinking while on the railroad, thou art fired.'
"It's like charging $100 for littering the highway. The police will not arrest a guy charging him if he knows the court is going to throw a $100 fine at him for taking his chewing gum and putting it out the window. They found there was a lot more enforcement . . . when they made it a $5 or $10 fine."
Blanchette previously has used labor-management negotiations to solve regulatory hassles over track standards, the frequency of safety checks for brake systems, whether a defective rail car can be repaired by another railroad, and a major revision of signal regulations. All of those were touchy issues that affected work rules and jobs as well as safety and management questions.
"I would like to be able to do that with alcohol and drug abuse regulations," Blanchette said in a recent interview, "because I think we will otherwise get ourselves in a regulatory contretemps" that will take years to produce a good regulation.
Both Blanchette and railroad officials are known to be leaning toward an approach that requires a train crew member to certify when he joins the train that to the best of his knowledge, crew members (himself and others) are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
"That does take one of the disincentives out of Rule G," Blanchette said, "the peer pressure" not to report a violator. If certification were required, a colleague found to be drunk could become the problem of the certifying crew member.
The Livingston case continues under investigation by the safety board. The railroad clerk, Janet Byrd, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at the board's public hearing, then offered her sworn deposition later, after dismissing her attorney. She said in the deposition, "It was a matter of time before the trick was up; there weren't any jobs to be saved, and there weren't any reasons to lie and I couldn't live with that."
Byrd and two train crew members have been arrested on state criminal charges of reckless handling of hazardous material, but have yet to be arraigned or to enter formal pleas. The Livingston Parish (county) district attorney's office was taken out of the case just last week by a state appeals court, and the case has been referred to the state attorney general's office for disposition.
Meanwhile, cleanup crews have made an enormous pit in Livingston, removing 44,000 cubic yards of earth that was contaminated by chemicals seeping from the 43 cars that derailed. Louisiana and Illinois Central Gulf Railroad officials are "discussing the levels" of chemical traces remaining, said Robert W. O'Brien, a railroad spokesman.