Now, the U.S. government is carving out a bigger role in the safety of such systems. In the summer, Congress approved a measure expanding the authority of the Federal Transit Administration and strengthening the role of state monitoring agencies, such as the Tri-state Oversight Committee (TOC), the official safety monitor for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
“These first-ever federal safety standards will ensure we can bring the full force of our national transit expertise to help promote a culture of safety on our nation’s rail-transit systems,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who led the push for federal oversight along with Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md).
“My promises made are promises kept,” Mikulski said. “I will not rest until Metro is safe for those who work on it and those who ride on it.”
Federal officials met last month in the District to discuss the new rules, which will take several months to write. At a minimum, transit agencies will be required to have strategies for identifying safety risks, to employ a trained safety officer who reports directly to the head of the transit agency and to have training programs for employees responsible for safety. State agencies, such as the TOC, will be required to meet new standards and to be certified by federal officials.
The push for federal oversight was prompted in part by the growing number of derailments, collisions and worker fatalities on subways — notably the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured more than 80 others. Federal officials expressed frustration that a 1965 law prohibiting federal regulation of subways was preventing them from taking necessary steps to ensure public safety.
“The law actually prohibited DOT and FTA from being involved in safety oversight,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “The fact is there is no standard, no transit safety program that people nationally can look to as a model.”
LaHood said the goal of the new rules is not to drown local agencies in federal regulations. Rather, federal officials will focus on a common-sense approach that puts safety first, he said. Although the U.S. government will set minimum standards, it will not regularly monitor local operations unless state oversight is inadequate or nonexistent.
A spokesman for the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group that has published its own set of safety standards, said it is too early to know what the fiscal effect of the new standards will be. Subway systems in some cities, including Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, already have some elements in place.