LaHood tells Congress federal government needs to oversee safety of subways, transit trains

By Joan Lowy, AP
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Feds ask for power to oversee rail transit safety

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration asked Congress Tuesday to give the federal government power to oversee the safety of subways, light rail and other urban train systems.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in testimony before a House panel, outlined a plan to give the Federal Transit Administration authority to set standards for and inspect the nation’s 50 local rail transit systems in 27 states.

Currently there are no nationwide minimum standards for rail transit safety, only voluntary standards produced by industry groups. The administration sent a legislative proposal to House and Senate leaders that would effectively eliminate a legal prohibition in place since 1965 that prevents the federal government from imposing broad transit safety standards.

LaHood also announced the formation of an advisory committee to help develop new safety regulations. The bill would allow states to receive federal transit assistance to staff and train safety inspectors to enforce regulations. States would have to show they have adequate safety programs in place in order to receive federal transit aid.

State agencies conducting oversight would be required to be fully financially independent from the transit systems they oversee. At some transit agencies, safety inspectors rely on the systems they oversee for their salaries.

“The current system for federal rail transit safety oversight is weak and inadequate and does not guarantee a consistent level of safety for transit passengers,” LaHood said.

The bill would also give the secretary of transportation the option to establish a safety program for public bus systems.

Peter Rogoff, head of the transit administration, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that with the exception of California, which he called the “gold standard,” states have an average of less than one safety inspector per rail transit system.

Transit systems carry 14 million passengers daily. That’s more than airlines or long-distance passenger railroads, which both get federal safety oversight.

Nine people were killed and 70 injured in a subway accident in Washington in June. There have also been recent high-profile accidents on rail transit systems in San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

One concern is the more than $50 billion maintenance and repair backlog at the nation’s seven largest systems which carry over 80 percent of rail transit passengers.

Rogoff held up a fist-sized, 65-year-old screw that he said was common in Chicago’s transit system, forcing trains to travel no more than 6 mph in some locations or risk an accident.

Some lawmakers noted that rail transit systems overall have a significantly lower accident rate than freight or long-distance passenger trains, which are subject to federal safety regulation. They questioned whether imposing new regulations would be burdensome on systems that for the most part are already very safe.

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., said the two rail transit systems in his state have never had a fatal accident.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., warned against “a tombstone mentality.” He said that if the government doesn’t act until “people die, then it’s too late.”

will not be displayed