Unlike the railroad, trucking and airline industries, where there are regulations for everything from equipment to the hours engineers and pilots work, rail transit straddles two worlds. Commuter rail systems such as MARC and Virginia Railway Express are subject to federal regulations, but subways, light-rail systems and streetcars are excluded under a law passed more than 45 years ago.
That leaves 47 rail agencies that set their own rules and procedures. Often there are few — if any — state regulations and only minimal oversight from independent authorities that have no enforcement power.
“We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. It’s shocking we don’t have them for the 7 million Americans who rely on metro systems every day,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has previously introduced such legislation.
The transit safety measures moving through both houses are tied to reauthorization bills for federal highways and transit spending, so many observers think the initiative has a better chance at passing this time.
The Senate version repeals a 1964 law that prohibits federal oversight of transit agencies and requires the FTA to implement and enforce minimum safety standards. The House bill leaves the law in place and allows the secretary of transportation to certify that state organizations have measures in place for transit safety oversight, according to congressional staffers and safety regulators. The House bill also would end the use of federal gas tax revenue for mass transit, requiring annual appropriations instead.
Push for regulations
A push for regulations followed the 2009 crash on Metro’s Red Line, which killed nine people and injured dozens.
In the months after the accident near the Fort Totten station, lawmakers and other officials rebuked Metro board members and staff for the lack of oversight. The National Transportation Safety Board urged Congress to give the FTA the power to enforce national transit safety standards, and the Obama administration sent legislation that had bipartisan support to Capitol Hill. Those efforts died in Congress.
In its final report on the crash, the NTSB, which investigates accidents but has no enforcement authority, criticized Metro for neglecting safety and for disregarding previous NTSB recommendations. It criticized the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), which monitors safety at Metro, for being weak. At the time of the crash, the TOC didn’t have its own office, phone or Web site and had only one full-time employee. The problems were highlighted in an investigative series in The Washington Post.