Home Public Transit Policy Feds to push for local transit safety oversight

Feds to push for local transit safety oversight

by Benjamin Kabak

Chalk this one up to a bad idea.

In a move entirely disproportionate to the problem, the Obama Administration is planning to propose federal oversight of local transit safety. Long the purview of the state bodies, safety measures have come under fire in recent months after a fatal crash in Washington, D.C. To combat what federal transportation officials view as rising safety concerns, the administration will, according to the Washington Post, send a plan to Congress that would allow the government to issue mandatory federal safety regulations for local transit agencies.

“After the [Metro] train crash, we were all sitting around here scratching our heads, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this,’ and we discovered that there’s not much we could do, because the law wouldn’t allow us to do it,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said to the Washington Post

The details so far have not been released, but coverage in today’s Times provides us with some clues:

Currently, 27 state safety agencies hold the responsibility for keeping transit systems safe, but the quality of those agencies varies widely, transportation officials said. Some rely on the very transit systems they are supposed to oversee for financing and lack the authority to enforce their rules. As for staffing, the state safety agencies average less than one full-time staff person per agency, the officials said.

Under the administration’s plan, states would be allowed to maintain oversight of their transit systems as long as they could demonstrate that they have enough fully-trained staff members to enforce federal safety rules, the authority to compel compliance from the transit system and enough financial independence from the systems they are regulating, officials said.

The federal government would also cover the costs of salaries and benefits for state employees overseeing standards. In states that are unable to provide adequate oversight, the federal government would assume that role.

On the surface, standardizing safety compliance and regulations seems to be a sound policy. Yet, when we dig into the rationale behind this and comparable measures as the commuter rail level, the idea breaks down. First, The Times explores the statistics spurring on federal action. Passenger injuries, the paper reports, on subways and light rail have increased a whopping 182 percent. There must be an epidemic, right? Wrong.

Over the last five years, injury rates have increased from 0.483 injures per 100 million miles to 1.362. As a comparison, automobile fatality rates are 1.27 per 100 million miles and injury rates are approximately 100 per 100 million miles.

Second, we can examine how federal safety regulations of commuter rail lines have caused numerous problems. In addition to the costs — which I’ll examine in a paragraph — federal safety regulations have become too burdensome. One of the reasons why commuter rail and Amtrak have yet to utilize fully the potential of high-speed rail stems from the federal government’s safety standards. Because of these mandates, trains are heavier than they need to be. Thus, production costs are increased and top speeds are slower than we would prefer. The balance between safety and efficiency has not yet been achieved.

Finally, the costs of compliance and enforcement are problematic as well. According to page two of the Post’s report, federal capital grants would be rescinded if agencies do not adhere to safety regulations. However, New York state politicians are fearful that the feds won’t foot the bill for compliance and enforcement efforts. How, then, should the nation’s cash-starved transit agencies — agencies that don’t suffer from major safety problems — pay for adherence to federal safety guidelines?

I certainly appreciate LaHood’s thinking, and in certain situations, standardized safety regulations make sense. But until train injuries increase and until the federal government can fund these safety projects, this is a policy we in New York should not support.

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John November 16, 2009 - 9:46 am

You compare train and automobile injury/fatality rates. Well, automotive safety is heavily influenced from the federal level too. I think it does make sense for there to be at least some guidance and oversight from the federal level on this, but as with everything, not too much of it. Until the full details come out, I’m not sure where I stand on this. The idea sounds good, but the implementation may not be.

Benjamin Kabak November 16, 2009 - 9:50 am

I wasn’t clear about this point, but auto safety is heavily influenced on the federal level because it became a national problem. Even with federal oversight, auto injury rates are still nearly 100 times greater than rail injury rates. We’re no where near the point where the feds should step in to force costly safety measures upon local transit agencies.

Working Class November 16, 2009 - 10:33 am

It’s alright for there to be safety standards for the commuter rail lines but not for the transit systems? The same standards of safety should be universal for all rail systems not just some.

Benjamin Kabak November 16, 2009 - 10:35 am

Well, if you read the post closely, you’ll see that I don’t think the safety standards are beneficial for commuter rail lines. Those, however, won’t be repealed any time soon. Why make a less-than-ideal situation worse?

Josh K November 16, 2009 - 12:19 pm

Most passenger trains in the US are co-mingled with freight trains on the same tracks. In Europe, freight an passenger rail are frequently segregated and their freight trains aren’t as massive as ours. US freight trains are currently allowed to have up 386,000 lbs. per axle loading on most mainline tracks, such as the CSX mainline through upstate NY. This higher axle loading is what allows the freight companies to achieve the efficiencies that makes them more environmentally friendly and cost competitive. With well over 100 cars per train, that’s a HUGE amount of inertia rolling around at 50mph. Even with all the safety signaling systems in the world, if one of those bumped into a light-weight high speed rail train, of similar construction to those in Europe, the results would be horrific.

The extra weight that ends up in US passenger rail cars is extra metal to strengthen the car in case it does try to occupy the same three dimensional space as a freight train. Who’s going to win in a Mack truck versus a Honda Civic – the Mack Truck. But a Mack Truck versus a Chevy Suburban is a different story, even though both SUVs and sedans are designed with many safety features, in the end it still comes down to basic physics.

What they need to do to make HSR viable here in the US is get together enough money for a large enough system to place a big order to justify the R&D of a US compliant HSR train. That means big money. I say we cut out 10% of the military budget for 10 years and we’ll easily have the money.

John November 16, 2009 - 1:40 pm

Exactly. To get true high speed rail in this country, it would need to be on separate tracks from the freight trains. If this ever were to happen, the weight restrictions would (probably) be different. And even if they weren’t, the trains could still go faster than they do now. The reason trains can’t go faster is because of the design and grade of the tracks, and the fact that they’re shared with freight, not the weight of the trains.

Alon Levy November 16, 2009 - 10:30 pm

Josh, you’re wrong. Caltrain did simulations, and found that lightweight, off-the-shelf trains perform better on crashes with heavy freight trains than FRA-compliant behemoths do. The extra weight makes the trains more likely to derail and topple, making them less safe. The FRA pulled the buff strength regulations out of thin air in the 1930s, making up a figure for how much force the trains needed to endure without ever checking what was necessary and what would improve safety.

In Europe, the reason they don’t have those rules is that instead of buff strength, they invest in signaling that prevents accidents. European and Asian trains, and most American passenger trains, have positive train control technology, which ensures that if the engineer drives too fast or runs a red light, the train’s computer will override him and stop the train or slow it down. The New York City Subway has had such a system from the beginning.

Alon Levy November 16, 2009 - 10:34 pm

Besides the fact that the commuter rail standards are stupid as well, rapid transit is different in that it doesn’t share tracks with freight. All trains running on the subway have positive train control – if the engineer runs a red light, the train stops. On American commuter lines, it’s not true – the passenger trains are subject to PTC, but the freight trains aren’t, leading to different safety specs.

Mind you, even with this caveat, the FRA and FTA are as competent as Michael Brown, so any system they’d design is likely to be bad. Unless the feds have a very good reason not to use the train control systems of Japan or Europe, they shouldn’t try to invent things. Third world countries rarely do well when they try to reinvent the wheel.

Nathanael Nerode November 19, 2009 - 11:55 pm

Also, it’s worth noting that the DC Metro crash — the impetus for this — was caused by really, *really* terrible design. The system *wasn’t fail-safe*. The problem was identified *decades* ago. BART had the same problem and *fixed it* decades ago.

If the federal safety standards simply amounted to “Use a failsafe signal system design for speeds over 30 mph and automated train operations”, or even “Do something to fix it when a problem with your system design is identified”, they’d be fine. Somehow I expect the federal standards wouldn’t be that simple and straightforward, though. 🙁

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