All three of the people involved in a fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia last April tested positive for drug use, including the train’s engineer and two members of a railway work crew who both were killed, according to federal investigators.
The engineer, Alexander Hunter, 48, who survived the crash, had used marijuana, investigators said. A backhoe operator, Joseph Carter Jr., 61, had used cocaine, testing showed. The supervisor of the work crew, Peter John Adamovich, 59, had used oxycodone, according to test results.
Both Carter and Adamovich were killed when a southbound passenger train traveling at 106 miles per hour struck the backhoe as it was at work on an adjacent track, the National Transportation Safety Board said after the April 3 crash in Chester, Pa.
The trio of positive drug tests were part of an alarming increase in drug use by railroad workers that was documented last year by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Nearly 5 percent of workers involved in accidents in 2016 were found to have used illegal drugs.
The FRA reacted to the Chester crash by requiring that track-bed maintenance workers be included in the extensive drug testing program that has been in place for train crew members for more than 30 years.
The fatal collision between Amtrak’s Palmetto train, with 330 passengers and seven crew members, and a backhoe being operated by Carter under Adamovich’s supervision, took place early on a Sunday morning. The southbound train departed Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station at 7:32 a.m. and was gathering speed about 18 minutes later as it began to pass through Chester.
A massive cleaning machine had been sitting all weekend on track number 2, one of four tracks that pass through the area. That track had been shut down for the maintenance work. Carter and Adamovich had positioned their backhoe on track number 3, the one which Hunter’s train was roaring down at 106 miles per hour.
Hunter told investigators he pulled the train’s emergency brake after “seeing something” on track number 3, but it was too late to avoid the crash.
“Then, you know, once I realized like — I knew — like, I could see, like when I got closer, that [the backhoe] was pretty well onto my track and I — you know, I knew I was going to hit him,” Hunter told the NTSB investigators two days after the accident. “I could feel the train lift up, and . . . I just kind of curled up in a ball in the deck of the locomotive and waited for it to stop.”
The engine derailed but remained upright. Hunter and 40 people on board were taken to hospitals with minor injuries. Release of the NTSB’s investigative docket Thursday will be followed at an as yet undetermined date by the board’s finding of probable cause for the accident. (The NTSB concluded that a post-accident test that found morphine in Adamovich was the result of the drug being administered when he was taken to a hospital emergency room.)
The FRA knew by April that drug use among railroad workers was on the rise, but when tests on Carter, Adamovich and Hunter came back positive, alarm bells went off.
In 2014, no one tested positive for drug use after a rail accident. In 2015, there were just two post-accident positives.
Railroad workers are 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.
After several years in which heroin and illegal opioid use had increased in the general population, it was evident that use of those and other drugs was on the rise in the railroad industry.
In approximately 50,000 random tests each year, there had been no appreciable increase since 2009. But that changed abruptly in 2015: Random tests of railway workers — including engineers, train crew and dispatchers — found drug use had soared by 43 percent.
Then-FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg reacted swiftly to that news. She summoned the heads of the nation’s passenger and freight lines to a closed-door session in Washington last year, laying out her concerns and asking for their help in combating the swelling problem.
Feinberg had a similar meeting with rail union leaders and then relayed her concerns to the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee. She also issued a rule requiring maintenance workers like Carter and Adamovich be added to the list of railroad employees subject to drug testing.
When the railroad industry asked for a one-year delay in the testing program — saying they were concerned over whether it covered contract workers — Feinberg denied the request.
Feinberg also instigated a decertification process against Hunter that would prevent him from operating a train again. Federal regulators generally defer to the railroad in such situations, allowing it to discipline or fire workers after positive drug tests. But that process can become entangled union contact rules, so the FRA moved ahead with decertifying him to ensure he could not operate a train again.
Hunter spent 17 years operating trains, most of that time with New Jersey Transit, followed by two years at Amtrak. When asked if he was still with the railroad, Amtrak responded with a statement that said: “Drug use in the workplace at Amtrak is unacceptable and is not tolerated,” but did not respond to that direct question.
The derailment was about 25 miles from the North Philadelphia location where a May 2015 derailment killed eight and injured more than 200.
The 2015 crash, though drug and alcohol use were not a factor, prompted questions about the safety of the country’s aging rail infrastructure. The train in that incident sped up from 70 mph to more than 100 mph in less than a minute before derailing.
It was one of the deadliest crashes ever to occur in the Northeast Corridor, the heavily trafficked Amtrak route stretching from Boston to Washington.