Amtrak Still Off the Rails When it Comes to Substance Abuse

Amtrak is the nation’s largest rail line, and apparently, one of the biggest offenders when it comes to substance abuse. A 2012 Inspector General’s Report, released as a result of an internal audit, pegged Amtrak workers’ drug test failure rate at 51% higher than the industry average.

Cocaine and Marijuana

Most Amtrak employees who failed drug tests were found to have positive test results for marijuana and cocaine, and the report further stated that use of alcohol and drugs by Amtrak employees had been rising steadily since 2006.

Ironically, it was a collision that an Amtrak train was involved, but not at fault, in that led to stringent federal drug and alcohol testing regulations for railroad companies in the first place. In 1987, an Amtrak train collided with a Conrail train in Chase, Maryland. The Conrail engineer ran three signals before hitting the Amtrak train, killing sixteen people. The Conrail engineer was found to be under the influence of marijuana.

As a result of the Amtrak/Conrail collision, “safety-sensitive” railroad workers are now under closer scrutiny than ever before. However, according to Amtrak’s own internal auditor, Amtrak officials have not done a very good job enforcing employee alcohol and drug testing and being in compliance with the regulations.

Testing Requirements Only Effective if Enforced

In the report, the Inspector General stated, “Amtrak’s current senior management’s lack of knowledge about the extent of drug and alcohol use, the lack of engagement in the program, and the limited response to (the Federal Railroad Administration’s) concerns about its physical observations raise serious questions about Amtrak’s commitment to controlling drug and alcohol use.”

To say the least, these are damning words. Officials with railway companies are obligated to physically observe each of their employees for signs of alcohol and drug use, and to do random drug tests on a minimum of one quarter of their employees annually who are in safety-sensitive positions, and alcohol testing on at least ten per cent. Apparently Amtrak fell far short of fulfilling those requirements.


The Inspector General’s report recommended that the 4,400 “safety-sensitive” workers employed by Amtrak (including engineers, conductors, maintenance employees, managers and dispatchers) be tested more frequently, and the results then compared with industry averages. Increased supervisor training was also recommended. In a follow-up report as recently as 2013, the company’s inspector general reported that Amtrak employees were still testing positive more often for alcohol and drugs than employees in similar positions at other railway.

It would seem that there’s still a good deal of room for improvement, so why haven’t strides been made in this area?

Just the testing that Amtrak should be doing would be sufficient to provide employment for several qualified drug and alcohol test technicians.  And unfortunately, it’s likely that there are other railway companies who are no better than Amtrak when it comes to drug and alcohol testing – perhaps just less visible.

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