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PTC Fails to Stop Crash, Questions About Drug Use and PA Railroad Employees Continue

Over the course of the past several years, it seems that train crashes, accidents, and incidents have become increasingly common in the Philadelphia metro area. Most recently, a train crash in Upper Darby occurred as SEPTA El Car 57 entered the loop behind the 69th Street Terminal during the morning rush hour. The train operator attempted to avoid the collision by activating the train’s emergency mode, but it was apparently too late to avoid the collision. SEPTA Train 57 was unable to stop in time and crashed into the rear of Train 67. Due to the impact, the train partially derailed and sideswiped a third train. Our Philadelphia train accident injury lawyers explain below:

No passengers were on board at the time of the crash, however, four employees were injured. The train operator was hospitalized and placed in a medically induced coma in an effort to stabilize him due to injuries to his head and neck. Three additional employees suffered minor injuries.

This accident is only the most recent train incident to occur. This crash occurred despite the implementation of positive train control technology. Furthermore, although SEPTA and federal investigators are yet to determine a cause of the crash, this latest incident is likely to attract additional scrutiny regarding whether a medical condition, such as sleep apnea, or prescription or illegal drug use contributed to making the crash inevitable.

Train Accident Occurred in a Track Sector Where PTC Was Active

Following the Amtrak 188 train crash on May 12, 2015, many safety advocates lamented the fact that if a positive train control (PTC) or automatic train control (ATC) system had been active, then the crash would have been prevented. Positive train control is a newer technology that the National Transportation Board has mandated must be installed by railroads. It can allow trains to be controlled remotely to reduce speeds or bring the train to a halt. However, funding issues have delayed the implementation of PTC across the nation. ATC is a predecessor system that can also limit the speed of a train.

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Commentators at the time noted that the PTC system had been installed on the track, however, the system had not yet been activated due to delays created by insufficient funding. Furthermore, the older ATC system was also absent from this stretch of track. As safety commentators stated, either of these technologies could have stopped this crash, however, the recent SEPTA El car crash does, at least in certain situations, calls the efficacy of the PTC system into question.

According to news reports, the predecessor ATC system was in place and active on the stretch of track where this most recent train crash occurred. It is technically feasible for the ATC system to have stopped the train before it rear-ended the lead train. However, this did not occur. SEPTA has confirmed that, under ideal conditions, ATC should have made the collision nearly impossible. It is currently investigating why the system failed to function despite the train being put into emergency mode.

Thus, investigators are still looking into what exactly caused this latest accident. The engineer did not report a medical event and he was able to activate the emergency mode, so it does not appear that sleep apnea or other medical conditions played a role. Investigators will likely continue to probe as to what intervening forces prevented the train operator from stopping the train. Areas of inquiry may include whether the engineer was distracted by events occurring on the train, outside of the train, or due to an electronic device. Furthermore, federal investigators are also likely to probe why the ATC system failed and whether any other factors, such as drug use, contributed to causing the crash.

Past Recent Train Accidents Also Raise Safety Concerns Following Drug Testing Results

While investigators have not uncovered signs of legal or illegal drug use in the most recent crash, we raise this possibility because investigations into past crashes have revealed that safety-sensitive employees engaged in certain prescription and illegal drug use in violation of their job and public duties.

Last fall, a fatal Amtrak crash involving a southbound passenger train, the Palmetto, and a maintenance backhoe captured the attention of the Philadelphia region and the nation. In the crash, a passenger train traveling at greater than 100 miles per an hour slammed into a backhoe. At the time, an array of questions existed including how the maintenance workers were placed in harm’s way. Other questions centered around determining which train ended up on the wrong track and if the engineer could have feasibly stopped the train prior to the impact. The crash killed two workers and severely injured another. This derailment occurred less than 30 miles from the fatal, 2015, Port Richmond Derailment.

The investigation looked into a number of potential issues and included routine post-incident drug testing for all impacted workers. However, the drug tests revealed a shocking result: All three of the workers involved in the fatal crash tested positive for illegal drug use.

In particular, the engineer tested positive for the use of marijuana. The backhoe operator tested positive for the use of cocaine. Finally, the work crew supervisor tested positive for oxycodone. The backhoe operator and crew supervisor were both killed in the crash.

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Trio of Drug Test Results is the Latest Data Point Showing an Increase in Drug Usage Among Safety-Sensitive Employees

The trio of drug test results was extremely troubling and set off the alarm bells at the Federal Rail Administration. However, these test results should not have caught the agency completely off-guard. In September 2016, The Washington Post reported on the fact that employee drug testing in 2016 had “shown that nearly 8 percent of workers involved in rail accidents were positive for drug use, including marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, benzodiazepine, OxyContin, and morphine.” This is the highest incidence of positive post-crash testing results since Federal Rail Administration began keeping records of drug testing results. Furthermore, this testing result is 300 percent greater than the results of just 10 years prior. Thus, nearly all major train incidents are met with a renewed focus on potential drug use by employees.

How Can Railroad Drug Testing Better Meet Today’s Safety Challenges?

These testing results seem to correlate closely with the nationwide prescription painkiller and opioid epidemics. The recent drug testing results illustrate that, despite existing drug testing procedures, safety-sensitive workers can nevertheless still be impacted by nationwide trends in drug use. It may also stand for the conclusion that drug testing programs need to be reviewed, study, and updated more regularly to meet not only existing challenges but also emerging ones.

For instance, for at least the past five years, the DOT has been aware of an upward trend in positive results for natural opiates and amphetamines. Furthermore, FRA found that certain workers – such as train repair and track bed workers – are five times more likely to use alcohol than other workers. Despite this finding and the nature of work performed, FRA regulations had previously exempted these workers from “safety sensitive” drug testing.

Unfortunately, FRA did not take action until after the train wreck outside of Chester that claimed the lives of the three workers. Following this crash and for the first time in the program’s 30-year history, FRA finally made the repair, maintenance, and track-bed workers subject to more stringent drug testing as safety sensitive employees. While the railroad companies requested a delayed implementation date, FRA declined to make this accommodation.

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Expanding the applicability of the safety-sensitive designation in the context of railroad and transportation workers should help identify more instances of unsafe drug use before a crash occurs. However, it is only a single piece in what should be a comprehensive solution. Other measures to reduce the use of illegal drugs by railroad employees and increase passenger safety should focus on education, notification, and outreach.

For instance, safety initiatives could include targeted informational materials setting forth the addiction potential of certain medications and how to get help. Programs that provide treatment should be made available to workers and workers should be encouraged to come forward for treatment. This would include certain protections against consequences if they successfully complete their recovery treatment. Furthermore, managers and other workers in a position to detect drug use should also be educated regarding warning signs presented by amphetamines and opioids – the two biggest emerging threats.

Drug Use by Railroad Employees Increases the Risk of Passenger Injury

Unfortunately, drug use by railroad employees in safety-sensitive roles increases the likelihood that a mistake will be made. This is a problem that will not go away on its own and will require the cooperation of both the federal government and railroads. However, by assessing the already existing data and targeting potential blind spots in the testing regime, the likelihood of a train accident or derailment can be reduced.

Speak to an Experienced Philadelphia Train Accident Injury Lawyer

In light of emerging train safety technologies, like PTC, this should theoretically be a time that is marked by a step reduction in accidents and incidents. However, recent events show that no safety technology is perfect or 100 percent effective. Furthermore, human fallibility and human error can render even the most advanced safety technologies less effective or ineffective. Therefore, even as PTC continues to be implemented, it is essential for railroads to address drug use and other correctable human elements that can cause an accident or derailment.

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