Jul
03

On the imposition of federal safety standards for subways

By

Late last week, the dysfunctional members of Congress managed to come together for a few minutes to pass something resembling a federal transportation bill. The two-year measure is short on reform and couldn’t, for instance, find a way to bring tax breaks for transit riders in line with those for drivers. Steven Higashide offered up a transit advocate’s view on the bill at Mobilizing the Region yesterday, and I don’t have qualms with his analysis or conclusions.

I want to instead focus on an insidious provision buried toward the back of the bill that concerns federal oversight of subway safety. As I’ve mentioned before, a few Washington politicians led by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski have decided that DC’s problems and everyone’s. When a few high-profile Metro crashes, caused generally by human incompetence and a poorly-designed system, made headlines, Mikulski sprung into action, and for three years, she’s been trying to foist federal safety standards onto subway systems that just do not need them.

Finally — and unfortunately — she succeeded this year, and the new transportation bill contains the National Public Transportation Safety Program. As with many federal mandates, these underfunded requirements will put some burden on local transit agencies. Once President Obama signs the Transportation Bill, the Secretary of Transportation will promulgate interim safety standards and a certification process. State agencies that want federal dollars will have to comply with these regulations or else forfeit the federal investments.

As a carrot, Mikulski has oh-so-generously dangled a whopping $66 million to be split up in whatever ways Ray LaHood deems necessary to help transit agencies to adopt the safety regulations. It’s a laughable contribution, but the Senator from Maryland didn’t seem to care.

“My promises made are promises kept,” she said in a statement. “After the tragic crash in June 2009, I promised two things to the workers at Metro and my constituents that ride Metro. One, I would deliver the $150 million in dedicated funding for Metro’s capital improvements in the annual spending bill which I have done every year. Two, pass legislation giving U.S. Department of Transportation the authority it needs to establish safety standards for metro systems across the country. Today, this legislation delivers on that promise. We always say a faithful nation will never forget. Then we move on and nothing is ever done. Well, not this time and not with this Senator.”

It’s hard to get around such woeful tunnel blindness. Mikulski and her fellow representatives seem to think that Washington’s problem is everyone’s when clearly it is not. So because their local papers featured stories of WMATA’s inept practices, they think everyone needs some help. Now, our MTA will likely be burdened with mandates it can’t fund and rules that limit future rolling stock upgrades. Our subway cars, already too heavy, may need to be heavier, slower and clunkier all because Washington, DC, couldn’t better manage its employees.

It’s telling that all representatives in praise of these standards cite to Washington’s accident record. In New York, we’re far less concerned with such safety issues but we’re going to have to pay anyway. Sometimes, no policy might be better than a bad one.



53 Responses to “On the imposition of federal safety standards for subways”

  1. Alex C says:

    Pandering politician panders. Also, the sky is blue. I do hope that whatever these “safety” standards are, the MTA meets them. But as Ben and others across the country have mentioned before, unfunded mandates are stupid.

    “Comply with these rules! But we won’t give you the money to make the improvements. Good luck!”

    • Bolwerk says:

      Near as I can tell, this can still go any which way. LaHood seems to have a good head on his shoulders, at least for transit, and may not make exceedingly dumb rules.

      Of course, I can see a Romney administration, backed by bumblefuck transit “advocates,” doing something really outlandish, like mandating onerous security requirements or making everything be a bus or something.

      • Alex C says:

        Any Romney administration requirements would just be those that require the giveaway of millions of dollars to private contractors who will be lining up to defraud taxpayers help transit agencies get up to code.

    • al says:

      It seems NYCTA has very overweight rolling stock. The 75′ long 7000 series railcar coming online for the WMATA are ~80,000 lbs. They are lighter than the 75′ R44-46 series subway cars and 60′ NTT R142-R160. Mind you the NYCTA has no revenue track where train run over 47mph except the 60th st tunnel (58mph for a short section). The WMATA have sections where train reach above 70mph, and regularly run >50mph.

      • John-2 says:

        NYCTA’s preference for heavier rolling stock dates back to the earliest crashes a century ago, when it was shown that the new IRT steel rolling stock handled accidents better than the wooden composites first put in the subway. But they did trry to lighten the weight back in the 1960s, first with some experimental lightweight trucks on the R-32s, and then the Rockwell trucks on the R-46s.

        It was the cracks that developed in the Rockwell trucks that caused the MTA to back off their efforts to reduce the railcar weights. Ironically, the R-46s with their lightweight trucks debuted a the same time as the original WMATA 1000 Series cars, which had no problem using lightweight trucks thanks to their far-lighter weight car bodies, but whose bodies led to other fatal problems 30 years later that in turn led to Sen. Mikulski’s latest example of Nanny State micromanaging.

        • al says:

          Why didn’t they try heavier bogies and lightweighted bodies?

        • Nathanael says:

          WMATA did not have a problem with its lightweight carbodies, it had a problem with a really poorly designed signal system. Specifically, a fatal defect which meant that the system wasn’t failsafe. A defect which had been fixed 30 years ago on the BART system, which was otherwise identical.

          People in charge of WMATA should have gone to prison for not, at the very least, copying the BART fix to the signal system.

      • Matthias says:

        Why are the BMT 60 St Tubes the fastest section? The Canarsie Tubes are also pretty fast even though BMT lines are usually the slowest. I would expect the 53rd St tunnel to be faster given IND design standards.

        • al says:

          The 60th St tunnel is the deepest below sea level in the system. It is so deep (crown of tunnel 100′+ below sea level) that when the BRT built it as part of the Dual Contracts, they dropped large quantities of clay, sand, and rocks to raise the bottom of the East River. Roosevelt Island divides the East River at this point. The currents are strong, resulting in serious scour that keep the channels deep. Its more serious on the western channel of the East River. Add in the elevation of the 60th St station and it is a long straight decline trains travel down while crossing the East River. All other East River Crossings, they tend to have shallower tunnels, curves or clearance issues that limit acceleration and top velocity.

          PS: The 63rd St tunnel has a station in the middle that limits speed. Otherwise, trains running downhill from 21st St would reach similar speeds.

  2. Mark hopper says:

    One of the rules should be that there must be a conductor on the train even on dc you can’t have just one person on a very packed train

    • mwdt says:

      Lots of transit systems around the world handle very packed trains on a daily basis, and seem to be doing fine. Many of them don’t use automatically piloting systems, either.

      Shanghai’s subway, for example, handles 2.1 billion riders per annum. Ironically, that system’s only accident occurred on its first and only automatic line.

    • Bolwerk says:

      That only raises the cost of running a train by ~40%, has little or no positive implications for safety, and finances the addition of one more person who can screw up.

      The focus should be on preventing failures, not preparing for them.

      • Brian Van says:

        I understand the ultimate focus of your comment, and maybe putting operator #2 on a train isn’t a great way to prepare for failure anyway, but really: The focus should always be on preparing for failures and handling them gracefully. It’s impossible to have a failure-free system, and the people who have tried have often failed in the worst ways.

        Engineers should design the system. Accountants/bureaucrats should support the mission of the engineers the best that they can with the skills that they have, and not meddle with the engineering after the system has already been designed.

        • Bolwerk says:

          How? At useful speeds, casualties are high in a rail disaster. That’s the risk. Beyond training, engineering, and maintenance, there isn’t much you can do to gracefully handle a failure. Trains are the safest, most efficient transportation mode in the world when this is realized.

          Focus on failure preparation where it can help: maybe on roads, where you expect that a certain percentage of drivers will do something dumb. Maybe on planes, where at least there could be hope of landing safely somewhere in the case of failure. On a train, another crew member is mostly another potential cadaver.

          • Brian Van says:

            Your “useful speed” is my “OMG why are we going this fast?”

            Also, solid anteclimbers tend to really help in these situations. While accountants usually do not insist on removing anteclimbers from trains, it’s other corners that tend to get cut that result in manufacturing flaws in such things going undetected, such that what otherwise would have been a car full of a lot of broken wrists ends up instead being a pile of decapitated bodies.

            (gross, I know. But that is what engineering means to us.)

            BTW we’re talking about urban core rapid transit that stops every 0.1-1.0 miles, not the Sunset Limited. 70mph on the outskirts of town is fine on straight track with no reverse flow traffic or grade crossings (rail or road) for miles ahead. Obviously you still need to do much to prevent or mitigate failures, but that is not an overly risky scenario. Still safer than road travel, probably!

            • Bolwerk says:

              Not that I disagree with that, but aren’t you now talking about prevention? AFAIK, after 25mph, rail collisions are automatically pretty dire, so this is a concern in urban transit too.

              I take preparation to be for what you do after a problem occurs. You might be able to mitigate bad outcomes for some disasters, but the main point is to avoid disasters with rail. If an engine fails in midair, at least you want a plan to land the plane; if it fails on a train, the only preparation you need is the preparation that keeps it from being a disaster – e.g., prevent other trains from hitting the stopped one by rerouting them or stopping them.

              • Nathanael says:

                Prevention is done by having a “fail safe” signal system, which means, when part of it fails, *it’s still safe*.

                Practically all signal systems are designed failsafe these days. The very poorly designed system at the DC Metro wasn’t.

            • Spendmore Wastemore says:

              my “OMG why are we going this fast?”

              In the NYC subway? If 35mph is too fast for you, you should try a horse. Or a crosstown bus.

              The subway formerly went up to 60mph before they de-powered the motors and installed timers, and trains weren’t getting into pileups in those days. They did waste less of the rider’s time.

              There have been 3 notable accidents in several _decades, 2 when the TO was drunk. TWU has a buddy system for drunks – everyone covers for everyone else until a crash.
              The 3rd accident came from nobody knowing how to drive a train – they moved one with the 2 front cars cut out, not understanding that those 2 cars wouldn’t trip the signals. TO, conductor, supervisors all doing the doofus dance. Result: broadside crash, fatal. The at-fault train was barely moving at the time.
              There’s no safe speed when aboard Doofus Transit.

              • Bolwerk says:

                Yeah. Generally, there seems to be this notion that transit riders’ time isn’t worth shit anyway. Like, if it mattered, they’d be in cars like a proper white man.

              • Alex C says:

                And that proves yet again that you can put a conductor in every car, it still won’t do anything if they’re incompetent or drunk. A modern, system-wide CBTC signal system with plenty of redundancy is what we need. That and proper infrastructure and you can run 60,000 lbs. car trains safely and quickly. Instead we do it the American way: dumb, stupid and slow. The result is 85,000 lb. whale “New Technology” subway cars that only guarantee that any accident results in more destruction.

                • Nathanael says:

                  I have never precisely understood what CBTC is supposed to mean, but a modern failsafe automated signal system with automatic train stop is what you need. If CBTC provides that, do it.

              • nycpat says:

                That system is gone. Like Motormen wearing their own clothes.

              • Andrew says:

                Which of those three accidents took place on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995, when it was discovered that the performance of the cars fell well outside the design assumptions of the signal system, whose fundamental purpose is to keep trains from running into one another?

            • Alon Levy says:

              NYC subway’s last accident in which passengers died on board was Union Square, right? So that’s about 25-30 billion passengers since, traveling about 10 km each, so we get 1 fatality per about 50 billion passenger-km. That’s on a par with the world’s safest mainline rail networks, 15 times better than the US mainline network (on which the Sunset Limited runs), and 200 times better than the US road network.

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:

      Uh, like the conductor on the 4 train who ignored the train operator’s overrunning 3 platforms, then driving at half speed, then overspeeding until he pulled off a fatal crash at 14th?

      No, you can’t fix corruption by paying for more corrupt employees.

      • nycpat says:

        That was twenty years ago. Totally different now. For instance then you had 1 supervisor for every 60 employees in RTO, now you have 1 for every 12. I believe that was federally mandated.

  3. Kid Twist says:

    Well, since we’ve already blown a gigantic hole this week in the Constitution’s doctrine of limited, enumerated federal powers, what’s the problem here?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Stop complaining about the Patriot Act, you disloyal librul.

    • Alon Levy says:

      It’s not a legal issue; it’s a the-regulation-isn’t-needed issue. Remember how Goldwater said he would not ask if a law is necessary before asking whether it’s Constitutional? Well, I am concerned about whether this is necessary, and given the safety record of US rapid transit systems, the answer is that it is not.

  4. Andrew Smith says:

    I suppose it is technically possible for one senator to have gone mad and become a passionate but disinterested advocate for a ludicrous scheme, but it’s far, far more likely there’s something more.

    I can see a showboating politician trying to do this right after the 2009 crash to win votes. But it’s been more than two years. There has been plenty of time for her staff to investigate this and say it makes zero sense. There has been plenty of time for transit experts and advocates to talk her out of this. But not only has that not happened but she has supported this strongly enough to lobby it through Congress.

    She’s doing someone a real favor, financial or something else. It’s highly unlikely that she’s just this crazy.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I don’t think there’s a mystery here. It could be that she’s that stupid, but it didn’t help that apparently the Obama administration wanted this. There isn’t anyone in the GOP to complain, since the rolling stock lobby isn’t exactly powerful, and gas/oil/petrol and airline interests must only see a positive outcome from this.

      Worst case scenario even for right-wing thugs: rail gets a bit safer. It’s not like raising the gas tax, where the positive impact theoretically means some asshole’s revenues go down.

    • If you’d really like to get creative with conspiracy theories, it’s easy to see how the auto industry could be behind such a measure. Onerous unfunded safety mandates leads to slower trains and cash-starved transit authorities. Extrapolate from there.

      I think that’s too tin-foil-hat for me though.

      • Bolwerk says:

        They don’t need to be behind it to let it slide. They can conveniently do nothing, and raise the exact same arguments for why this is a bad idea when regulation affects them.

        (Here’s the major reason it’s a bad idea, afterall: most transit agencies already are well-regulated. WMATA perhaps wasn’t doing a good job regulating itself. Okay, regulate WMATA, as is Congress’s constitutional right.)

      • Alon Levy says:

        Serious question: have the libertarian outfits and the conservative pundits who complained about curbside bus regulations said anything about this?

        • Nathanael says:

          Of course not. “Libertarians” and “Conservatives” in positions of power are *always* paid hacks, and the public transportation riders aren’t paying ‘em.

    • NEB says:

      This is the nature of politicians. When you give someone a lot of power, they will use it, whether advisable or not. That is why regulations and laws are generally a one-way ratchet — everyone wants to pass laws to show they’re doing stuff.

    • Chris says:

      The MTA would be in a better position to complain about unfunded mandates if it didn’t rely on billions in federal funding. I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that the people putting up the money for a program should have a big hand in setting the rules. It’s petulent to complain about having to comply with a few ground rules before cashing 10-figure checks.

  5. JAzumah says:

    Good. It is about time that safety principles be applied to public transit in the same manner that it is applied to the private sector. We deal with unfunded mandates all of the time.

  6. Jim D. says:

    The train has left the station, so to speak, and the mandate is coming. What the MTA should do is band together with its sister legacy rail agencies in Boston and Philadelphia and make sure their concerns are registered and that the resulting regulations take reality into consideration.

    Better yet, they can take a page from their time-tested playbook that they use every time a fare increase is needed – go to the press with a doomsday scenario of cuts in service due to trains that may have to be retired prematurely, or of express trains that must be limited to 25 m.p.h. if regulations are designed in a ‘one size fits all’ scenario.

    • lawhawk says:

      Another failing of the legislation is that it doesn’t appear to give the MTA or other similar agencies the ability to seek waivers from these inane requirements. Maybe the DoT would take a more pragmatic approach to the requirements considering the track record of the MTA and its handling of safety issues with the public.

      At the same time, consider that the automakers are dealing with their own weight issues – safety gear adds weight to vehicles at a time when every pound is a hit against fuel economy standards that are being increased significantly over the next decade. They’re dealing with the same kinds of concerns. However, they can get around some of the problems with creative weight solutions (exotic materials, etc.). The MTA isn’t so lucky considering that it has a huge amount of rolling stock and it would be a generation before the changes (if any) run through the entire stock.

      If the MTA is forced to add weight to its trains, it would mean increased energy costs, and reduced efficiencies – which go against the goals of the current Administration, and that’s something that the Congressional delegations in NY, MA, etc., should address.

  7. Nathanael says:

    OK, best case scenario: the “unfunded mandate” is simply a PTC mandate for the subways.

    Among other things this would mean that the subway system would be *required* to have all the tech in place for fully automated train control. Do you think that would help with the goal of reducing staffing? I think it might.

    • Alex C says:

      It won’t help diddly squat if the MTA doesn’t have the cash for a CBTC system. Though technically, the old signal system does have automatic train protection and automatic train stop built in with the trip-cocks that activate at red lights.

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