The state proposed strict new policies yesterday to prevent transit workers with drug problems from returning to the controls of trains and buses - even as investigators said preliminary tests show no evidence of illegal drugs behind Tuesday's crash of a light rail train at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The Mass Transit Administration said, however, that four of its 2,400 workers in "safety-sensitive" positions - including drivers - are still on the job after twice testing positive for drugs. Forty operators have tested positive in random drug tests from 1997 to 1999 and 10 in tests after accidents.
The tougher policies would need union approval, and a labor official questioned the need for the changes.
Dentis Thomas, 48, the operator at the controls in Tuesday's accident, tested positive for cocaine in 1994 and was fired, sources familiar with his case said. He returned to his job the next year after Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 intervened on his behalf. He successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program in 1997, sources said.
MTA Administrator Ron Freeland said Thomas has had consistently clean test results since. A urine test after Tuesday's accident, which injured 22 people, proved negative for illegal drugs, investigators said. Blood and Breathalyzer test results are pending.
Thomas had taken medical leave because of a back condition several months ago and returned to his job as a light rail driver on Monday, sources said. After the crash, on his second day of work, he told investigators that he was taking a prescription muscle relaxer and blood pressure medication, sources said.
The light rail car slammed into a steel barrier at its final stop outside the BWI terminal. Initial tests have found no mechanical or signal problems. A source close to the investigation said the train speedometer was stuck at 48 mph. Trains are to approach the stop at about 13 mph.
It is unclear whether Thomas' medications might have impaired his ability to control the train, National Transportation Safety Board officials said.
"We're still looking at that, and we're still waiting for the Breathalyzer [alcohol] test," said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.
Efforts to reach Thomas yesterday were unsuccessful.
MTA policies now allow drivers and engineers found to be using illegal drugs to return to work after a 15-day suspension and mandatory participation in a drug rehabilitation program.
Following a similar light rail crash at BWI in February, state officials began informal talks with the union about a new drug policy, but those discussions went nowhere. Early yesterday, state officials told the union that contract talks were being formally reopened.
"At that point we did not know the results of any testing of the operator, but we felt it was the prudent thing to do," said Transportation Secretary John Porcari. The train operator in February tested positive for cocaine and was fired.
Under MTA policy, an employee in a "safety-sensitive position," such as a train operator or maintenance engineer, is required to tell a supervisor if he is taking prescription medicine that would inhibit his ability to operate heavy equipment. The supervisor decides whether to allow the employee to work.
MTA officials said they did not know what Thomas' medications were or if he had informed a supervisor.
The changes proposed yesterday would permit the state to immediately fire employees in "extreme safety-sensitive" jobs - such as bus or train operators - if they test positive for illegal drugs.
Employees in less sensitive positions would be fired after a second offense. Those employees would be reassigned to jobs that are not safety-sensitive. Freeland also wants suspensions to be longer than 15 days.
"One question we ask ourselves at the MTA is how we can win back the confidence of the public," Freeland said. "I do that by standing here and telling the public this is of primary importance to me."
To enact any changes, however, the MTA must get agreement from the union. The reaction there was mixed yesterday.
"How would you feel if it were your son on the job 20 years - would you rather have him fired or in a bona fide rehabilitation program?" said Ennis Fonder, president of the local.
"Look at how many trips those light rail trains make a day and average out how many accidents we have. We have a very safe system."
Asked last night why some of the steps hadn't been taken after the first accident, Transportation Secretary Porcari said discussions with the union had been ongoing.
"We knew it would involve longer-term efforts," he said. But he said, "I'm not at all happy about the speed with which some of these previous recommendations were implemented. That is going to change."
As for operators returning to their jobs after rehabilitation, he said: "With proper controls, periodic retesting and stringent safety standards, it can be done safely."
That policy is not unique to the MTA.