A series of recent incidents suggests some engineers are crossing the line and putting passengers at risk by giving fawning young admirers too much access to trains.
An engineer in Chicago was recently suspended after reports that he let a teen operate a commuter train, a ride that the 18-year-old boasted about on his MySpace page. And a crash between a freight train and a commuter train that killed 25 people last month in Los Angeles allegedly occurred seconds after the engineer sent a text message to some young train buffs.
These and other incidents have unnerved passengers and railway officials alike, and they've raised questions about whether oversight and safety rules are adequate.
Passengers entering locomotive cabs and driving trains "is not an epidemic," said Matthew Melzer, a spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "But what it brings into focus is that there are human safety factors."
The crux of the issue is concentration - ensuring engineers keep their attention on the controls and on the tracks ahead.
As commuter trains barrel along increasingly congested tracks, some sharing lines with freight trains, an accident is at least a possibility at any second, said Judy Pardonnet, a spokeswoman for Chicago's Metra. Among the potential hazards are car drivers who foolishly try to slip around crossing gates.
"Operating a train is lot more complicated than it appears to the average person, who might think,
'It's just a train that goes straight down a track,'" Pardonnet said. "But it is very complicated and it needs an engineer's full attention."
There are rules are designed to help make sure engineers aren't distracted.
They are strictly barred, for instance, from letting passengers into a locomotive cab, and they can't use potentially distracting items such as cell phones, BlackBerries, newspapers and books, Pardonnet said.
Neither Pardonnet nor other Federal Railroad Administration could provide details about the teen's alleged operation of a Metra train, including when and on what line it supposedly occurred. Pardonnet said his MySpace page has been taken down.
The engineer allegedly involved has been suspended pending an investigation, as have two others accused of letting the same teen into their cabs on other routes, Pardonnet said.
"If these allegations are true, there will be very quick proactive actions," possibly including dismissal, she said. An an investigative hearing is scheduled for early next month.
"If these alleged actions occurred it is completely unacceptable," said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Steve Kulm. "No one should be operating a train who is not certified to do so."