Home Public Transit Policy Times vs. Second Ave. Sagas: Federal transit safety oversight

Times vs. Second Ave. Sagas: Federal transit safety oversight

by Benjamin Kabak

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on the Obama Administration’s plan to promulgate federal regulations for local transit agencies. At the time, I was vehemently opposed to the regulations on three grounds, and I remain convinced of that position despite a recent editorial from The Times urging the FTA to pursue a national safety regulatory scheme.

My argument was a three-pronged attack on the idea. First, rail transit just isn’t dangerous enough to warrant federal intervention. While auto travel features an injury rate of 100 per 100 million miles and a fatality rate of around 1.27 per 100 million miles, train injury rates are 1.362 per 100 million miles, and the fatality rate is negligible. Second, past practices have shown how burdensome federal safety regulations are. Commuter rail lines and Amtrak trains are made to be too heavy to run at top speeds just so they can meet standards. Finally, because this would be another unfunded government mandate, it would be too much fiscal pressure on public transit authorities already struggling to stay afloat. In other words, it’s just a bad and unnecessary idea.

The editorial board of The Times thinks otherwise. Here’s their take:

The Obama administration wisely wants to end this disjunction by proposing that Congress extend federal standards to subway and light-rail lines now haphazardly regulated in more than two dozen city and regional systems. The safety rules and monitoring are shockingly toothless in too many jurisdictions, with the systems averaging less than one overworked safety worker.

The Washington accident happened on the second-busiest subway line in the nation. It is theoretically monitored by a tri-state committee that was found, however, to have no regulatory authority or enforcement workers.

Under the administration’s approach, the safety of subway and light-rail lines could remain under the jurisdiction of local authorities only if they agreed to upgraded equipment and monitoring standards set by the Department of Transportation. The alternative would be direct federal regulation. Federal money already subsidizes subway and light-rail growth, and it should be cut off to systems that cling to risky standards.

The government was barred from regulating subways and light rail in 1965 when home rule was a priority. But new systems have boomed since then, along with collisions and derailments. The National Transportation Safety Board has warned about the dangers for decades.

The choice for Congress is stark: Improve safety on light rail and subways, or wait for the next train wreck.

Apparently, according to The Times, because Washington’s three-headed WMATA doesn’t have sufficient safety oversight, other transit agencies should have to suffer under the weight of federal regulation as well. Why? Because they accept federal money to operate and grow. Meanwhile, The Times claims that “collisions and derailments” have boomed when that reality has not arrived.

This approach is, simply put, wrong. If the WMATA needs more stringent safety measures, then fine. The Feds oversee a third of the DC Metro and can do with it what they see fit. But cutting off federal funds to other transit agencies who refuse to follow stringent and oftentimes misguided regulations would set a bad precedent. In a time when we need to encourage more transit growth and use, the Administration should not implement measures antithetical to that goal.

If the federal government is willing to subsidize the implementation of costly safety standards while foisting maintenance costs onto local authorities, I would be more willing to support this measure. But the government should not be denying funds to agencies that can’t afford to upgrade already safe systems to meet stringent requirements. Considering that the largest local transit system in the country is in its own backyard, the editorial writers at The Times would do the city well to promote this plan and not the one they espoused today.

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John November 30, 2009 - 6:02 pm

Again I would need to see specific regulations they’re proposing before having a real opinion. If they really start asking for ridiculous and unnecessary standards, then I’d be against it. But if they just aim to make things consistent and make everyone meet basic safety standards, I’d be for it.

The train weight example is misguided I think. Amtrak and commuter rails need to be heavier because they share track with freight trains. If you put light rail on the same tracks as freight, accidents would be horrific. On systems that don’t share track with freight, I doubt they would introduce weight regulations.

rhywun November 30, 2009 - 8:49 pm

If you put light rail on the same tracks as freight, accidents would be horrific.

Tell that to Karlsruhe and the numerous other cities which do just that. You might as well say that tractor trailers and subcompacts on the same street should be banned.

Anyway, The Times has never met a Federal regulation it didn’t like, so no surprise there. I don’t have the knowledge to judge whether this particular regulation is wise or not, but like Ben, I think unfunded mandates suck.

Lawrence Velazquez December 2, 2009 - 1:41 am

I’m generally a fan of regulation… when there’s a demonstrable need. Like Benjamin, I see no need here. It isn’t as if we’re seeing train accidents every week.

Alon Levy November 30, 2009 - 8:55 pm

I propose that any person whose first language is English should be banned from proposing any rules about rail or transit operations in the US. If Americans want new regulations, they should have the option of using either the existing European rules or the existing Japanese rules. Third world countries run by corrupt kleptocrats should not try to come up with their own ideas of how to run things, not if they want success.

Alfred Beech November 30, 2009 - 11:43 pm

When I read about the proposed oversight, I thought it was a good idea to promote standards of safety that were nationwide, rather than system by system. I agree with the first poster, however, and would like to know details.

Part of the Washington issue was that the group that was in charge of safety oversight didn’t have access to the whole system, making their job more difficulty. If safety is done in-house, it makes sense to me that the group in charge of inspections be autonomous, and have full access to the system. That may sound self-evident, but I can easily imagine an organization like the MTA dismissing safety recommendations because of budget constraints, and that shouldn’t be allowed.

leg December 1, 2009 - 12:11 am

Why shouldn’t the MTA be able to weigh safety recommendations against budget constraints? There will always be ways of making the subway safer (let’s start with sealed tracks with elevator-like doors) but they might well be very expensive: enough so that we’d end up pushing people to more dangerous modes of transport. Bad cost/benefit analyses is what Benjamin fears when he brings up train weight—heavier trains may well be safer, but they have real costs that hold back US transportation.

Lawrence Velazquez December 1, 2009 - 6:24 am

The Washington accident happened on the second-busiest subway line in the nation.

Really? Is this accurate?

Alon Levy December 1, 2009 - 4:59 pm

Probably not – the Lex, Broadway-7th, and QB systems (i.e. trunk line plus extensions) all have more ridership than the entire DC Metro.

Lawrence Velazquez December 2, 2009 - 1:39 am

Yeah, I thought that must be a typo. Perhaps they meant to say “system” rather than “line”.

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E. Aron December 3, 2009 - 8:47 am

Dusting off the old con law outline, I guess the case that most closely correlates here would be SD v. Dole, and this would be a condition imposed by the feds that’s directly related to fed transportation money, namely safety?

Aside from my concern with an ever-expanding federal government, do you see constitutional issues with this hair-brained proposal? 10th Amendment?

Streetsblog Capitol Hill » Proposed Federal Transit Safety Regs Under Scrutiny From House Panel April 2, 2012 - 11:06 am

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