FTA Considering New Safety Oversight for Rail Transit

New subway safety standards may be coming soon to a city near you.  The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has assembled a team of transportation safety experts to explore rail transit (subway, light rail, and commuter rail) safety reforms, which may extend to bus operations.

FTA is currently prohibited by law from establishing national safety standards, requiring Federal inspections, or requiring specific operating practices, but that may soon change.  In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff condemned several recent transit collisions as unacceptable and announced the Obama Administration’s intent to pursue reform.

Most rail transit is free from federal safety oversight. There are exceptions - certain commuter rail systems are funded by FTA but regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations.  But the majority of urban rail transit systems are overseen by the State safety oversight agencies.

Any new safety oversight requirements will probably be tied to FTA’s traditional role as a grant-making agency. Administrator Rogoff highlighted the need for new transit funding, citing a National Transportation Safety Board  preliminary report indicating that the condition of equipment and age of the rolling stock may have resulted in the Washington D.C. crash earlier this year, which killed 9 and injured more than 70 passengers.

Aging equipment is a serious concern nationwide.  FTA’s recent rail modernization study surveyed the seven largest transit operators, which carry more than 80% of the nation’s transit passengers.  More than 33% of the assets held in these systems were in marginal condition or had already exceeded their useful life.  Servicing this system’s backlog of unmet needs would cost a staggering $50 billion, by the study’s estimates.

As the new surface transportation authorization process gets underway the Administration’s plans will no doubt provide fodder for vigorous debate.  Administrator Rogoff’s testimony seems to hint that new safety measures may be linked to FTA’s discretionary New Starts program.  In the meantime, look forward to a follow-on FTA study identifying safety critical infrastructure and industry wide state of good repair needs.

Video of the hearing "Rail Modernization: Getting Transit Funding Back on Track," along with written statements from the heads of the Chicago Transit Authority, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, New Jersey Transit, and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority are available from the Senate Banking Committee's website.

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