APTA | Passenger Transport
December 21, 2009

In This Issue


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House, Senate Examine Rail Transit Safety

Rail transit safety is a significant issue on Capitol Hill, with a focus on funding infrastructure. The House held a recent hearing to look at the federal role in ensuring public transit safety; the Senate called its own hearing to consider the Obama administration’s proposal to overhaul safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems.

House Hearing, Dec. 8
On Dec. 8, the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met to scrutinize DOT’s role in ensuring the safety of public transit systems. This hearing, “Public Transit Safety: Examining the Federal Role,” was part of the subcommittee’s effort to authorize federal surface transportation programs under SAFETEA-LU, which expired Sept. 30 and has been funded through continuing resolutions, the latest extended for two months.

Those testifying included DOT Secretary Ray LaHood; Federal Transit Administrator (FTA) Peter M. Rogoff; Katherine Siggerud, Government Accountability Office managing director, physical infrastructure issues; Richard W. Clark, director of the Consumer Protection and Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission; and APTA President William Millar.

Announcing that “safety is my department’s highest priority,” LaHood noted that rail transit systems are the only transportation mode within DOT without comprehensive Federal safety regulation, oversight, and enforcement. Further, he said, “the Department of Transportation is prohibited by law from issuing regulations on the safety of rail transit systems.”

He discussed how he instructed his deputy secretary, John Porcari, to convene a team of safety officials and experts to address the patchwork quality of regulatory oversight for rail transit and commuter rail passengers and develop options for transit safety reforms.

Their resulting legislative proposal would require several actions, including mandating that the secretary of transportation, acting through FTA, establish and enforce minimum federal safety standards for rail transit systems (other than those subject to regulation by the Federal Railroad Administration) that receive federal transit funding; establish a safety certification program; and ensure that a state agency overseeing transit systems would be fully financially independent from the systems it oversees.

He called on lawmakers to pass the Public Transportation Safety Program Act of 2009, which would implement comprehensive safety-monitoring systems.

“Aggressive reform is needed in the existing federal transit oversight authorities,” LaHood said, adding: “We cannot rest on the laurels of a good safety record—especially as our transit infrastructure ages. We must take action to ensure consistency in the way rail transit safety oversight is addressed.”

Clark noted: “Safety oversight is often reactive. Public attention is aroused too often only after catastrophic events and media attention. Good governance demands a proactive approach where there are clear standards and practices to identify and mitigate hazards before they become tragic events. Proactive safety oversight built upon a systems safety approach and hazard management is necessary to the advance of public transportation.”

Siggerud testified on FTA’s State Safety Oversight (SSO) program and the potential change to its oversight role. “Our 2006 report,” she said, “found that officials from the majority of oversight and transit agencies stated that the SSO program enhances rail transit safety, but that FTA faced several challenges in administering the program.”

Millar stressed that the nation’s 48 rail transit operations are safe, “and their customers should utilize them without hesitation, but safety can always be improved.” He emphasized the critical need for an improved and reliable national transit operations database that agencies and other industry practitioners can use to benchmark their operating performance, including trends in safety.

“Federal safety priorities must also address the delivery of adequate resources to support and sustain research to close gaps in the body of knowledge to enhance safe transit operations,” he added.

Senate Hearing, Dec. 10
“Examining the Federal Role in Overseeing the Safety of Public Transportation Systems” was the subject of a hearing convened Dec. 10 by the Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Those offering remarks included subcommittee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ); Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT), chairman of the full committee; Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD); Brian Cristy, director, Transportation Oversight Division, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities; John B. Catoe Jr., general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA); and Millar.

As Menendez said in his opening remarks: “… No matter how well we regulate transit safety, we cannot expect safe systems if we do not invest in new infrastructure. This is why I am hopeful that robust rail modernization funds will be a part of a forthcoming jobs bill.”

Dodd noted the positive aspects of public transportation, saying: “The more Americans use transit, the better off we all are. Transit is a win-win-win-win-win.” He continued: “But our first priority must be to ensure that Americans can use our rail transit system with the confidence that they will be safe … That means infrastructure must be repaired, operators must be properly trained, and problems must be swiftly corrected.”

Last July, Mikulski introduced the National Metro Safety Act, which would require strong new federal standards for heavy rail systems nationwide. However, standards alone would not be enough, she said, noting that the sufficient amount of resources would also be required. “That will make ‘America’s subway’ [Metrorail, operated by WMATA] and subways all across America safe, reliable, and sound,” she said.

At the hearing, Mikulski called for swifter action by WMATA.

Cristy testified about SSO programs, saying his department “supports a strong rail transit system SSO program with new enhancements to allow the FTA to become a more active participant in the safety regulatory process.” He added, however, that the success of any program requires that the local transit authority be an equal partner, with full support of the program coming from the top down to the operator level.

Echoing the comments of others testifying, Millar said: “While it will take many steps to improve transit’s enviable safety record, it will also take significant financial investment to bring public transportation systems up to a state of good repair, to increase the training of transit employees, and to correct safety deficiencies identified. It is simply not enough to pass laws and issue regulations, if safety is to be taken to the next level, investment must be made.”

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