Two former Conrail crew members involved in the Conrail-Amtrak crash that killed 16 people last year told a Senate panel yesterday that alcohol and drug use is widespread in the railroad industry, and random drug testing of rail workers is needed to curb the problem.
"Use of the 'reasonable suspicion standard' would not have detected any problem with my behavior on Jan. 4, 1987," said Ricky L. Gates, a Conrail engineer who smoked marijuana after reporting for work that day, then ran a string of three diesel locomotives through a stop signal near Baltimore and into the path of an oncoming Amtrak train. The crash, which injured 175 people, was the worst in Amtrak's history.
Gates has admitted to smoking marijuana that day, but his lawyer is disputing a National Transportation Safety Board finding that the accident was caused by any drug impairment.
"Detection can be circumvented by drinking or doing drugs while on the engine," Gates said. "Sometimes crews stop the engine to purchase beer and consume it on the engine."
Gates, who pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter in connection with the accident, estimated that 10 percent to 20 percent of the railroad workers he knew had drug or alcohol problems. Edward W. Cromwell, the brakeman on the Conrail locomotive the day of the crash, said the number was much higher -- more like "40 to 50 percent."
The two crew members were witnesses at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee called to draw attention to a mandatory drug-testing bill waiting resolution by Senate-House conferees. The hearing opened with testimony from three parents whose children were killed in the Conrail-Amtrak crash, who urged Congress to quickly pass the legislation.
But the most dramatic testimony came from the soft-spoken Gates and Cromwell, who somberly described a railroad industry riddled with unsupervised and bored crew who consume cases of beer on the job, and a management that coerces intoxicated workers to report for work to keep the trains moving.
"It was almost every trip," Gates said of his early railroad years. "I thought I wasn't accepted by my fellow employees if I wasn't indulging."
Their testimony was disputed by railroad union leaders who said the seriousness of railroad drug and alcohol abuse problems is no greater than the problem in society at large. A Conrail spokeswoman said intoxicated workers who report to duty are not allowed on the job and are subject to disciplinary action.
"This is a battle of political power between you and the railroad unions," Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) told the families. "You will not win this in an instant. You have to fan the flames of rage."
Danforth had attached his drug testing bill to the Senate's airline consumer protection bill on the Senate floor last December. A move to table Danforth's amendment was defeated by an 83-to-7 vote.
The airline consumer bill, including the portions requiring drug testing of airline workers and truck and bus drivers, is before conferees from the Commerce Committee and the House Public Works Committee.
But the portion of the drug-testing provisions involving the railroads has been assigned to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who does not support the Danforth amendment.