I've been the beneficiary of two "illegal" cab rides--once on the Alaska Railroad (during a wintertime passenger run before I worked for them) and once for about (and I know most of you would give your right arm for this chance
) an hour on Acela coming into NYC from the north (see here for pictures
)--and neither one was at all anywhere near dangerous or distracting to the engineer.
I've also been the beneficiary of countless legal cab rides as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad. (Never got old.
) On one of these runs on a 30-odd-car loaded coal train (short and heavy--one of the hardest kinds to run through undulating territory), an engineer let me run the train (operate the controls) for about 45 minutes coming into Fairbanks. I did a dang good job, if I may say so myself, though I was very closely guided by the engineer. (He justified it by saying that eventually I would become a hostler and then student engineer, so there was no sense in not starting me nice and early with proper training!)
All of these opportunities were very closely guided by people with the utmost care and concern for everyone's safety. Therefore, I am not willing to make a blanket statement that people who enjoy trains should never be allowed to see the inside of the cab or otherwise indulge in their hobby in a safe manner.
However, the alleged behavior exhibited by the engineer involved in this Metrolink incident does seem to indicate a lack of responsibility, and while as a young railfan, I would have very much wanted to know someone like the engineer (assuming nothing inappropriate ever happened between the kids and him) who would have let me into the cab and touch the controls, there may be a need to put procedures into place to ensure such irresponsible behavior is not tolerated on the railroad.
Let me reiterate: it is possible to responsibly allow train enthusiasts to enjoy their hobby while at the same time being completely irresponsible while being alone (or having a second railroad worker) in the cab. The action of having a railfan in the cab in and of itself is not irresponsible: the root is deeper, and an effort must be made to not allow people who would perpetuate irresponsible actions (like texting while running a train) into such sensitive positions.
Interesting comparison: being an aircraft pilot is viewed as a respectable, professional position. Such people are actually referred to as "professional pilots." Professional behavior includes remaining focused on the job and not allowing distractions to compromise safety. On the other hand, working on the railroad is typically viewed as blue-collar work without an accompanying code of professionalism. Pilots have a culture of promoting operating as safely as they can, whereas railroad workers have a culture of skirting the edge of the rules to get the work done as quickly as possible without compromising too much
safety. I'm not sure what can be done to change this perception and culture, but that may be one way to consider going about it.
On that note, it actually isn't impossible to visit the cockpit of an aircraft while in flight. In 1999, I visited the flight deck of a British Airways 747-400 midway over the Atlantic for a good 15 minutes with a cadre of children (I was the oldest). 9/11 mostly put the kibosh on that for "security"--not safety--reasons, but when properly supervised and with responsible
people in control, there has never been any problem with allowing visitors up front (and indeed it can still be done in places where rules are more lax than in the U.S. and Western Europe).