- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

The light-rail crash at Baltimore Washington International Airport Tuesday has prompted rail and union officials to revisit drug-use policies for rail operators.

Early test results indicate illegal drugs were not in operator Dentis Thomas' system Tuesday morning, when the four-car train crashed into the international pier of the airport.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are searching for the cause of the crash, whether it is a mechanical failure or a human mistake.

Mr. Thomas, 48, was among 22 persons who were slightly injured. He later told investigators he "blacked out" about a quarter-mile from the pier. He had returned to work Monday after medical leave for back problems, for which he was taking a muscle relaxer and blood-pressure medication.

Two Breathalyzers and a urination test found no illegal drugs in Mr. Thomas, but investigators still await a blood test analysis.

Personnel records indicate Mr. Thomas, a 26-year employee, has been consistently clean of illegal drugs, according to Mass Transit Administration Administrator Ron Freeland.

Mr. Freeland's statement came after the (Baltimore) Sun reported that Mr. Thomas was fired after testing positive for cocaine in 1994. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 intervened and got his job restored, and he completed a drug rehabilitation program in 1997, according to the article. Mr. Freeland would not comment specifically on the newspaper report, his office said yesterday.

Amalgamated President Ennis Fonder Jr. said Thursday he could not comment on whether Mr. Thomas was fired for cocaine use in 1994 because that was before he became union president two years ago.

Mr. Thomas has been involved in three other light-rail accidents in the past 13 months. He was cleared of blame in two of the incidents and was suspended for three days after the third accident, a derailing that occurred July 7, 1999, with no passengers aboard.

MTA has removed him from service until the investigation is complete.

Meanwhile, the final stop at international pier is closed, and light-rail passengers are riding shuttle buses from the next-nearest stops to the terminal.

The possible use of drugs is being investigated because the operator of a light-rail train in a similar crash Feb. 13 was found to have cocaine in his system. Sam Epps Jr. is awaiting trial in Maryland's Anne Arundel Circuit Court in October on reckless endangerment charges.

After the February crash, MTA proposed stricter illegal substances policies, including a policy to fire operators or "safety sensitive" employees who test positive for illegal drugs. Amalgamated has had the proposed changes nearly five months without agreeing to them.

The current policy calls for a 15-day suspension and requires the employee to go through a drug-rehabilitation program. It also gives first-time offenders a second chance. There would be no second chance under the new policy for the "safety sensitive" employees.

"We believe a person should have a second chance," Mr. Fonder said yesterday.

The current MTA policy for operators who test positive for drugs on a second occasion calls for discharge from their jobs. But, MTA reports, four second-time offenders got their jobs back through union arbitration.

The proposed MTA policy is similar to Metro's policy and federal policies affecting railroad operators. The federal policy is set by the Federal Railroad Administration and applies to companies such as Amtrak, instead of light-rail operations.

"Safety sensitive" railroad employees undergo random testing, sometimes as they arrive for work. First-time offenders are automatically and immediately suspended. They must enter treatment programs and show correction before they can go back to the job.

First-time offenders are placed on two-years' probation and closely monitored when they return to their jobs. They also must submit to periodic clinic testing, said Cliff Black, spokesman for Amtrak.

Metro "safety sensitive" employees who test positive are immediately suspended and must enter a rehabilitation program. They are monitored and randomly tested for five years before they can resume their jobs, said Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson.

Few "safety sensitive" railroad employees test positive for drug use after accidents. Federal Railroad Administration statistics show only 10 engineers tested positive after more than 12,000 incidents since 1995.

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