Crews in rail wreck pass one hurdle Amtrak drug test negative. Another test is awaited.

April 16, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Amtrak officials say the company's own tests of urine samples taken from the crews of both trains involved in last Friday's train wreck in Chase showed no sign of drug or alcohol use by either crew.

Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black said the railroad is still awaiting the results of the Federal Railroad Administration's official tests on blood and urine samples taken from the four Conrail and two Amtrak crewmen in the hours following Friday's accident.

The results of the FRA's tests aren't expected back before the end of this week, or the beginning of next week, said FRA spokeswoman Kay Wood.

"But Amtrak, for its part, retains samples for its own testing. And it is these Amtrak samples that have been tested and found to be negative on both the train crews," Black said.

Similar tests on a urine sample from the Amtrak dispatcher on duty the morning of the crash were incomplete, Black said.

Black said Amtrak has hired a private laboratory to conduct drug and alcohol tests in order to get workers who test negative back to work more quickly after an accident.

"In most cases we hold the employee out of service pending drug- and alcohol-test results, and in some cases it takes weeks for the FRA to produce these tests. And we like to have a criterion on which we can put somebody back to work if they are not needed for the investigation or questioning," Black said.

In this case, he said, "the Conrail crew members don't appear from this perspective to have been in any way involved in the cause [of this accident], and, with the [drug and alcohol] tests negative, we have no problem with their going back to work."

Both of the Amtrak crew members were injured in the collision. One was in good condition today at the Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore. The second was released from Shock-Trauma late Saturday and remained on medical leave.

The Amtrak diesel locomotive and its string of three "dead" electric engines were just south of the Gunpowder River in Chase, Md., headed north toward a repair yard Friday morning when they struck the center of a 124-car Conrail coal train. The coal train was southbound, moving off the main line out of the path of the Amtrak train.

Two Amtrak crewmen jumped from their engine seconds before the impact and suffered serious injuries. The Conrail crew escaped uninjured.

The site of Friday's accident is just yards from the spot where an Amtrak passenger train collided with a string on Conrail locomotives in an accident that killed 16 people and injured 170 others. That crash was blamed in part on marijuana smoking by the Conrail crew.

The National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday that Friday's accident caused more than $800,000 in damage to railroad equipment and track.

Also yesterday, the NTSB expressed some displeasure with the railroads for not moving more quickly to gather blood and urine samples from the train crews in the hours after the accident.

NTSB spokesman Alan Pollock said the injured AMTRAK crew had samples drawn at 5 a.m., just two hours after the 3:10 a.m. accident.

But samples from the Conrail crew were not taken until 11:30 a.m., more than eight hours after the crash and "not as timely as we would like," Pollock said.

"You want to get as fresh a sample as possible, especially when you want to get tests for alcohol, which gets out of the system pretty quickly," Pollock said.

Drug and alcohol tests are mandatory under FRA regulations any time a rail accident involved fatalities or damages in excess of $500,000.

Conrail spokesman Robert Libkind said that, because Amtrak owns the tracks where the accident occurred, it was up to Amtrak to estimate the damages and notify Conrail that tests were required. Requiring employees to give samples under any other circumstances would violate FRA regulations, he said.

Word on the damages was not received until "later in the morning," Libkind said.

Pollock said Conrail told the NTSB it was not notified that damages had exceeded the $500,000 threshold until 7:30 a.m. By that time the Conrail crew was busy moving the damaged train. And there was further delay while the crew gave statements prior to being taken to a hospital to provide blood and urine samples.

Such delays "could affect how drug tests come out," Pollock said.

The NTSB investigation continues to focus on the condition of the track signal system and the brakes on the Amtrak locomotives.

Investigators have indicated that Amtrak workers failed to properly connect the air brake lines between the working diesel locomotive and the three "dead" electric locomotives it was pulling.

If the signals and the brakes were all working properly, the Amtrak train should have been able to stop before colliding with the coal train. Black said locomotives on both trains were equipped with automatic train controls, which are supposed to stop a train if the engineer fails to respond to a track signal ordering him to slow or stop.

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