Obama administration calls for federal regulation of rail lines
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The head of the Federal Transit Administration brought a prop to Tuesday's congressional hearing on rail transit safety -- a lag screw, used to fasten rails to ties, that was 55 to 60 years old.
He said the director of the Chicago Transit Authority told him "there are plenty of these still in his system."
Failure of lag screws was cited as a factor in a July 2006 derailment on Chicago's Blue Line that injured 152 and caused $1 million in damage, and is a symbol of ongoing concerns about safety and reliability on the aging system, FTA administrator Peter Rogoff said.
The Obama administration this week unveiled legislation to give the federal government greater regulatory power over the nation's 48 rail transit lines, including Allegheny County's light rail system.
It said that despite a relatively good safety record, it was concerned about recent accidents, including a June crash on the Washington, D.C., Metro system that killed nine.
Currently, states designate the agencies that oversee their subway, light rail, monorail, trolley, cable car and incline systems.
"This results in a patchwork of 27 separate state oversight programs guided by a regulatory framework of inconsistent practices, limited standards and marginal effectiveness," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Republicans on the committee were skeptical of the plan.
U.S. Rep. John L. Mica of Florida said Amtrak and commuter rail systems, which are federally regulated, have worse safety records than the rail lines that are not. He also worried about creating a costly bureaucracy.
"The current data reveals an argument against a federal takeover of transit safety regulation, not in favor of it," he said.
Rail transit "generally has been one of the safest forms of public transportation," the Government Accountability Office said in an update of a 2006 report that nonetheless found inadequacies in the regulatory system.
Thirteen oversight agencies devoted less than one full-time employee to the assignment, the GAO said. Eleven had no staff with expertise in transit safety or security.
Katherine Siggerud, GAO managing director for physical infrastructure issues, noted "several recent notable accidents and other troubling safety events are cause for concern."
She cited the Metro accident and several other fatalities involving Metro workers; a May 2009 collision of two trolleys that injured 49 in Boston; and a rail car collision in July in San Francisco with 48 hurt.
The Obama measure would give the Federal Transit Administration power to write and enforce minimum safety standards; allow states to operate their own federally certified enforcement programs and receive federal funding for them (or opt out and let the FTA do the enforcing); and require the oversight agencies to be financially independent of the transit systems.
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said Pennsylvania has a strong rail oversight program administered by PennDOT, but he "absolutely" welcomed an expanded federal role.
"We're proud to have one of the safest systems out there," he said. "But we always look to improve."
Federal oversight could result in improved training, consistency and information sharing rather than "27 different approaches," he said. But he cautioned that the regulations must accommodate the differences in various systems, like the slower speeds at which the Port Authority system operates.
"If they apply a one-size-fits-all standard, we might have to invest in things that don't make sense," he said.
William Millar, a predecessor of Mr. Bland's who now heads the 1,500-member American Public Transportation Association, cited FTA data that show a person is 142 times less likely to die as a passenger on rail transit than in an automobile.
"Unfortunately, despite the industry's unyielding commitment to safety, accidents do sometimes happen," he said.
The age of rail transit systems and a lack of upkeep because of insufficient funding are a growing concern. The FTA has estimated that one-third of the assets of big rail systems, including tracks, trains and structures, are in marginal or poor condition.
"It will also take significant financial investment to bring public transportation systems up to a state of good repair, to increase the training of the men and women who work in our industry and to correct safety deficiencies identified," Mr. Millar said. "If safety is to be taken to the next level, investments must be made. It is not enough to just pass laws and issue regulations."
First Published December 10, 2009 12:00 am