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Amtrak failing to spot, stop impaired employees

Amtrak is failing to spot and stop drug and alcohol use among its employees who are trusted to keep passengers safe, according to newly released documents obtained by the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit.

In a 33-page report issued Thursday, Amtrak's Office of Inspector General found:

  • There were more than double the number of safety-sensitive employees with drug or alcohol issues than Amtrak knew about

  • Requirements for the railroad's drug and alcohol testing program "were not consistently" being followed, with no annual drug tests or fewer than the three required for 61 percent of the locomotive engineers

  • Seventy-seven percent of supervisors had not been trained to spot potential drug or alcohol impairment

  • Amtrak has "no way" to ensure employees report prescription drug use and, as recently as December, had failed to implement measures to ensure compliance.

"Without more effective controls over drug and alcohol detection, training, and reporting," the inspector general concluded, "the company will miss opportunities to identify potentially impaired employees and mitigate the safety and financial risks these employees pose."

'We can do a better job'

Courtesy: NTSB

As an illustration of the life-or-death stakes involved, the report cited the crash of Amtrak 89 near Chester, Pennsylvania, in 2016 that killed two workers. Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board later found drugs had been in the system of both employees who died.

In a statement to the National Investigative Unit, an Amtrak spokeswoman said, "We do appreciate the OIG's work in identifying gaps in how we manage our processes and data on drug-and-alcohol use. We recognize we can do a better job here, and we will implement the OIG's recommendations as soon as possible. There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our people and our customers."

Amtrak also said it now randomly drug tests safety-sensitive employees at more than twice the rate required by federal regulators and now tests for a wider range of drugs and opioids.

Safety Practices Under Scrutiny

The railroad has been under scrutiny for its safety practices.

Amtrak recently asked the federal government for another two years to fully implement the "life-saving" technology called Positive Train Control on all of its routes.

Federal investigators found incidents such as the crash of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia in 2015 that killed eight people could have been prevented with PTC, which overrides human error to stop a speeding train.

A National Investigative Unit investigation in November found that America's passenger railroads, including Amtrak, have struggled to implement the automatic safety mechanism more than a decade after Congress first mandated it.

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