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Can oversight help transit safety without hurting transit?

The Obama administration is calling for federal safety oversight over the nation's transit systems.

Photo by Dead Air.

Clearly, the existing oversight is failing, at least in the Washington region, as many local oversight boards lack the resources or the teeth to promote meaningful safety. The Tri-State Oversight Committee not only ran into a brick wall named Alexa Dupigny-Samuels when it asked to monitor active tracks, but has no Web site, no contact information, and no staff.

Dupigny-Samuels is still safety chief and keeps her responsibilities, Metro insists, but she's just getting added supervision from the police chief. Really? So what would one have to do to actually get responsibilities taken away or to be formally demoted?

Jim Graham joined the calls to welcome federal oversight. Richard Layman prefers a stronger regional oversight system. Either way, safety needs to be a top priority, and Metro has clearly fallen down on the job, as Dave Stroup has thoroughly documented in his ongoing series (1, 2, 3).

Nevertheless, it's vital to ensure that safety oversight focuses on the big picture. Making transit safer is important. But there's also such a thing as too much safety. Many argue that the Federal Railroad Administration over-regulates railroads. They require trains heavy enough to handle large crashes without even deforming. As a result, Amtrak's Acela trains had to be reinforced with extra supports, making them heavier and slower, and causing them to break down much more often than their European counterparts.

A federal oversight board in charge of safety would have one mission: making transit safer. Would that lead to unreasonable unfunded mandates, forcing transit agencies to drastically cut service to pay for needed improvements? Would that lead to permanent slow-speed orders that make transit systems significantly slower than cars? After all, if a safety agency issues regulations that decrease deaths by two a year nationwide but also decrease ridership by a hundred thousand nationwide, that agency can point to the reduced deaths and say they've done their job.

If highway deaths increase as a result, they haven't. BeyondDC calculated that Metrorail is 34 times safer than driving per passenger mile. Even one person is much safer still riding Metrorail than switching to driving. Commenters have pointed out that good driving can reduce crash risk somewhat. That's true, to an extent. Of course, we don't know if the people who switch are good drivers or bad. There's also an argument that you can control your own risk on the road, instead of on Metro. So let's hold Metro to a higher standard than driving. But how much higher? Ten times? A hundred?

There haven't been calls for increased federal regulation of Secret Service vehicles, speed restrictions on Maryland Route 5, or mandating replacement of all old cars without side air bags. If a driver kills a pedestrian, police just wonder if the driver was criminally at fault, and if not, we shrug our shoulders and move on. That happens a few times a week just in this region. But when there's one tragic train crash for the first time since 1982, the federal government steps in. We have federal regulation of auto crashworthiness, but not roadway design, which is the bigger culprit in many deaths.

It'd be great for Metro to replace the 1000-series cars. But that would cost billions they don't have. Actually funding new cars would be best. What if that's not possible? Shorten all trains to four cars? Double rush hour headways? Delete the Blue Line permanently?

Safety oversight could certainly bring a lot of good. It's just just a capital issue. As Dave Stroup has written, some of the problems are organizational. Some involve processes. There does need to be some independent monitoring. And making people feel safe riding transit is absolutely vital to getting people to ride.

Ultimately, safety regulation is valuable as long as its net effect is to increase the safety of commuting overall, not just the safety of that one mode even if the regulation pushes people to a more dangerous mode. Instead of making the Federal Transit Administration responsible for transit safety, let's make the safety regulation body (federal or regional) responsible for improving surface transportation safety in general. Let them issue recommendations for driving, bicycling, walking, transit and commuter rail safety. Measure their success based on one thing: the overall death rate in a metropolitan area from people moving about. That will ensure they focus on whatever is killing the most people, rather than whatever gets the biggest headlines.

If that's not politically realistic, what else could we do to ensure that a federal or regional oversight board pushes for the right changes without going overboard and killing transit in the process?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Federal oversight isn't a bad thing per se - the kind of oversight they offer, however, is the key.

If all they're going to do is promulgate a lot of unfunded mandates, then we haven't really changed anything for the better.

Likewise, if their regulations are to be so focused on one approach to safety as to make the core mission of rapid transit (moving people) difficult or impossible (as the FRA seems to do with High Speed Rail - and even commuter rail - the MTA's new cars for the LIRR are ridiculously heavy), then that's a step back as well.

Look at how long the FRA has been calling for positive train control on our railroads, yet we're nowhere near close to implementing it.

Any federal transit safety body has to be a transit advocate as well.

by Alex B. on Nov 16, 2009 9:58 am • linkreport

It would seem odd that some Washington bureaucrats would start regulating the San Fran streetcars. We are experiencing that federal implementation of rules without regards for localities leads to insanity (see: smartrip purses).

On the other hand, local oversight is clearly not working very well either. This is partially true because a number of the largest transit systems cross state lines: NY/NJ, Philly/Camnden, DC area...

I do foresee stalemates though between local governments refusing to pony up costs that are federally mandated.

by Jasper on Nov 16, 2009 10:39 am • linkreport

David, you hit an excellent and often ignored point that safety regulations, often implemented with the best of intentions, can cause widespread nuisances. WMATA's official policy of prohibiting walking on escalators is a fine example of management listing to the general counsel's office rather than observing the riding public.

Federal security policies, including the willy-nilly placement of Jersey barriers, the restriction of public access, and harassment of innocent photographers provide even more examples in which bureaucracies, tasked solely with the goal of "security", exclude all other aspects of public use of public buildings and institutions.

You are right to worry that Federal safety oversight could have similar consequences for transit systems.

by Eric Fidler on Nov 16, 2009 11:04 am • linkreport

Hard from my point of view to see the value of more oversight. Current discussion would seem to me to indicate that the system is working. Spending more money on federal oversight is just a knee jerk reaction. Infrastructure spending is something we all need come to grips with whether be for Metro trains or water pipes.

by Interested on Nov 16, 2009 11:05 am • linkreport

We have federal regulation of auto crashworthiness, but not roadway design, which is the bigger culprit in many deaths.

The federal government does in fact regulate roadway design. You have head the phrase 'functionally obsolete' use to describe the inadequately of some existing roads? The facilities designated functionally obsolete do no meet federal minimum design standards. The standards have been changed over the years. The agencies charged with bring there facilities up to the new standards are playing catch up with limited funds to make the improvements.

by Sand Box John on Nov 16, 2009 11:12 am • linkreport

Perhaps the safety oversight of road design around transit stations could be transferred from the FHWA to the new transit safety agency. This would allow the transit safety agency to focus rationally on the most cost-effective means of reducing injuries and deaths among transit riders.

by Ben Ross on Nov 16, 2009 11:41 am • linkreport

There have been a lot of excellent points raised so far. The proposal to have the federal government regulate transit has the opportunity to do lots of good things but it could also hamstring transit.

1. National safety standards
2. Regulate multi-state agencies, WMATA, SEPTA, etc.
3. Regulate where existing regulators are weak, i.e. WMATA.

1. Unfunded mandates - Positive train control (this would be a VERY good thing if properly funded)
2. Counter productive regulations - FRA impact requirement (might not be as important if positive train control happened)

Additionally, it will be interesting to see how Republicans come out on this issue. Will they follow the small governemnt model or will they come out behind this?

by Cullen on Nov 16, 2009 11:46 am • linkreport

I had the same reaction when I heard about this. It would be very sad if this well-intentioned move actually kills transit expansion under a pro-urban President.

Maybe this could be tied to funding? Make the mandates funded so that local transit could concentrate on service and expansion while the feds take care of safety testing, equipment, and upgrades?

by tim on Nov 16, 2009 12:45 pm • linkreport

The post article specifically says that the cost of improvements would be shouldered by agencies. That's a hard pill to swallow, even if compliance were phased in, as it would have to be, if the regulations were anything more than worthless.

On the side, some agency will buck and sue the government. It could be an interesting con-law case about the interstate commerce clause.

Also, does this not apply to buses/BRT, or are those already regulated?

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 16, 2009 12:59 pm • linkreport

Alex B writes Any federal transit safety body has to be a transit advocate as well.

Your inability to understand basic American history becomes transparent on this post. The ICC was supposed to be an impartial regulator of rates, and eventually became captured by interested.

Granted that rates are different than safety, but safety agencies ought not to be involved with transit advocacy- that is the job of administration officials, as transit advocacy should be the realm of the administration, not the civil service.

by MPC on Nov 16, 2009 4:46 pm • linkreport

"and eventually became captured by interested." should read "and eventually became captured by interested parties."

by MPC on Nov 16, 2009 4:46 pm • linkreport

All I'm asking is that if they demand fancy safety systems that they help find the money to pay for them.

Unfunded mandates won't do any good.

by Alex B. on Nov 16, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

Unfunded mandates won't do any good.

If the FTA already gives the localities money, it shouldn't matter.

Besides, unfunded mandates are good. They let policy makers say that they have taken action, without causing actual change to take place.

by MPC on Nov 16, 2009 5:03 pm • linkreport

You're describing the system we have now - the NTSB issues their recommendations, and WMATA does whatever they like.

Federal safety oversight is not inherently a bad thing, but the devil's in the details.

by Alex B. on Nov 16, 2009 5:09 pm • linkreport

As previously reported on this very site WMATA has repeatedly shown itself either unable or unwilling to make safety a priority. Federal oversight could turn out to be very good, very bad or something in between depending on how it is done but either way Metro brought this on itself. As long as Metro is run by people like Catoe, Graham, Dupigny-Samuels and anyone else who thinks covering up safety issues, ignoring NTSB recommendations, stonewalling outside inspectors and lying to press is acceptable the riding public can't and shouldn't trust Metro to operate safely without independent oversight.

by Jacob on Nov 16, 2009 5:52 pm • linkreport

Oy. While WMATA's record is bad, I do worry that federal involvement will be even worse. Distressing though WMATA's actions have been, the fact remains that Metrorail is relatively very safe, as evidenced by BeyondDC's stats. As a general rule, rail transit with a poor focus on safety is still safer than car travel with a good focus on safety. I share David's worry that this federal body will result in less transit overall, which is a loss for safety even if it makes transit systems shape up.

by Josh B on Nov 16, 2009 9:23 pm • linkreport

When my train sails through a grade crossing, I'm glad it's a battering ram.

But there's no substitute for cognizant management with its feet on the ground.

by Turnip on Nov 16, 2009 9:30 pm • linkreport

The real issue is that WMATA has inadequate oversight by the jurisdictions (MD, VA, DC) that fund it. The jurisdictions aren't dealing with it. WMATA has some serious issues, and people died. WMATA is in DC and the federal govt. notices it. Therefore, as a little girl says in a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer about the mother's parenting "don't globalize," the fed. govt. response is to globalize and proposes the promulgation of a national system for oversight, to deal with one very serious gap in safety oversight of rail-based local transit in the _DC region_. Clearly, most transit systems don't have the kinds of problems that WMATA has evinced. So the issue is to do more of what the other systems do, or have, in their oversight systems (as well as in their management and operations).

Federal oversight isn't necessarily the ideal response. Especially because I can't ever see them having the resources to monitor properly and adequately all the various fixed rail transit systems. cf. the SEC and Wall Street, the Federal Reserve and banks, etc.

Note that the NYT article on this subject in yesterday's paper captures some of these issues better than the Post's coverage has.

by Richard Layman on Nov 17, 2009 8:44 am • linkreport

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