fb-pixel Skip to main content

Going off the rails with crazy railroad rules

A conductor signals to the train engineer at the Rowley MBTA Station.Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff / 2016 File


he Globe’s recent report revealing the poor personal driving records of many commuter rail engineers raises serious public safety issues that demand a response from state and federal officials. Over the longer term, it also signals areas in which the next commuter rail contract, due in 2022, can be improved.

The Globe’s Andrea Estes found that only 14 percent of engineers at Keolis, the MBTA commuter rail-contracted operator, have clean driving records; 22 percent have had their license suspended more than twice, while six engineers have been declared habitual traffic offenders. One of them has had his driver’s license suspended 39 times, been caught speeding 16 times, and been convicted of drunken driving twice.


To put their records in perspective: Eleven percent of Massachusetts drivers have more than two speeding tickets in their driving history, compared with 36 percent of Keolis’s engineers.

Engineers are responsible for driving trains, but Keolis disputed the significance of engineers’ personal automobile driving records, arguing those have “absolutely no bearing” on their job performance in a locomotive. Last year, the commuter rail system recorded eight rules violations, out of 150,000 trips.

But though the skills it takes to drive a train and a car may be a different, a demonstrated pattern of recklessness or substance abuse is a red flag for drivers of any vehicle. Some of the deadliest commuter train crashes in the country in recent years have involved distracted or impaired engineers.

To their credit, the state and Keolis are now implementing a new policy to monitor engineers’ driving records directly with the Registry of Motor Vehicles, replacing an old system that required them to self-report most violations committed behind the wheel.

That’s a start. But union rules and federal regulations also need scrutiny.

Keolis, which took over the contract in 2014, said most of its workforce came from the previous two contractors, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company and Amtrak. Its contract required re-hiring most of the existing workforce. The next gubernatorial administration should take a hard look at the labor clauses in the 2022 bid. If an engineer has a record that involves drunk driving convictions in a reasonably recent period of time, the contractor should be empowered — and expected —


to remove him or her from the job.

The state’s congressional delegation, especially Boston-area representatives Michael Capuano and Steve Lynch, should help forge a contract that puts public safety ahead of the union members’ job security.

That’s not all. Currently, a railroad company is only allowed to look at an engineer’s driving record for a three-year period. Baker has asked federal regulators to allow longer look-backs, and the state’s congressional delegation should support him. When commuters board their train in the morning, they have every right to expect that they’re not entrusting their lives to train drivers who can’t even hold onto a vehicular license.