WASHINGTON — A top federal safety official said Thursday that two train derailments that killed seven persons within the last year might have been prevented if the government had rules banning alcohol and drug use by railroad crews.
National Transportation Safety Board chief Jim Burnett said it is "truly incredible" that there is no "federal regulation that prohibits a locomotive engineer from operating a passenger or freight train after using illegal drugs or alcohol to excess."
"In fact, as far as federal rules are concerned, that engineer can consume a bottle of whiskey while at the controls," Burnett said.
Railroad Agency Blamed
He said that the National Transportation Safety Board, which has only an advisory and investigative role, recommended more than 10 years ago that such regulations be adopted, similar to those required for airline pilots. But, he said, the Federal Railroad Administration has been stalling.
"And, while we wait, the fact is that railroad accidents involving drugs or alcohol have continued," he said.
Burnett said at a board hearing that the railroad agency should hand down "immediately a specific regulation with appropriate penalties prohibiting the use of alcohol and drugs by employees for a specified period before reporting for duty and while on duty."
The hearing was called to investigate two fatal accidents on the Burlington Northern Railroad in April, 1984.
Rules Ready Soon
A spokeswoman for the railroad administration said that the agency is working on final alcohol and drug rules and that they should be handed down in the near future.
"We're at the redrafting stage," she said. "It is a complicated piece of work."
Under the proposed rules awaiting final action by the railroad administration, which is part of the Transportation Department, the use of alcohol and drugs by railroad crews would be prohibited. Other proposals would require testing of crewmen after a significant derailment and pre-employment drug urine screening for job applicants.