GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

Opinion

January 9, 2013

Letter: Landmark date raises pot law red flags

To the editor:

I’m a retired locomotive engineer, with 40 years-plus on railroads in New England, and with all the “hoopla” in the news right now about Mass. & other states voting to approve medical marijuana, I think you should be made aware that Jan. 7 - this past Monday — marked the 26th anniversary of a horrific event that everyone contemplating the dissemination of marijuana should think long and hard about.

On Jan. 7, 1987 — just seven days after Amtrak took over the operation of all of Boston’s commuter trains, where I was working at the time, from the Boston & Maine RR — Amtrak train No. 94, running from Washington, D.C., to South Station, Boston, was traveling northbound after departing Baltimore. The 4-track mainline of Amtrak’s “Northeast Corridor” narrows down to 2 tracks for the mile long crossing of the Gunpowder River in Maryland. Operating at its maximum authorized speed of 125 mph, it was approaching this bridge, 18 miles north of Baltimore.

Operating on an adjacent track in the same direction were 3 Conrail freight locomotives running lite — without a train. Ricky Gates, the Conrail engineer operating the freight locomotives while smoking marijuana, it turned out, went by the red signal at 30 mph that told him to stop just before the bridge at a switch which connected the track he was on to the track occupied by Train No. 94.

Ricky Gates, high on marijuana, drove his engines into the path of that Amtrak train, running at 125 mph, with devastating results. He walked away from carnage that left the entire Amtrak train wrecked, the engineer and 12 passengers dead and more than 100 people injured.

This single event led to a number of major changes in law and operating practices for all forms of transportation.

Within a very short period of time, Congress passed a law mandating mandatory alcohol and drug testing for all transportation personnel, from taxi and truck drivers, to railroad train crews, to tugboat and ship captains and airline pilots. This also led to federal licensing of locomotive engineers — unlike airline pilots, who have always been licensed. Prior to this event, engineers, though trained in locomotive engineer schools on various railroads, did not carry or even have licenses.

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