Federal Agency Moves to Enhance Safety of Public Transportation Systems


 | Aug 26, 2015

Americans used public transportation more in 2013 than they had in any year since 1956, taking 10.65 billion passenger trips, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The rate of growth in public transportation ridership is increasing faster than both population growth and vehicle miles traveled.

In an effort to promote the safety of public transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently issued a proposed rule which would establish a “Public Transportation Safety Program” to oversee public transit systems across the country.

Public transportation has long been a very safe method of traveling around cities; unfortunately, several accidents in recent years haveraised questions about the safety of some of the nation’s transit systems. For example, in January 2015, two subway trains in Washington, D.C.,encountered an accumulation of smoke and stopped short of the platform, resulting in one passenger dying and another 86 passengers needing medical treatment.

According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, his department’s proposed Public Transportation Safety Program “will help us ensure that transit continues to be a safe way to get around, and a safe place to work.”

The proposed program would adopt the basic principles of safety management systems, establishing a top-down structure to ensure safety accountability throughout the organization. By creating a culture of safety, safety management systems help organizations identify failures and risks, and then to take corrective actions to resolve them. A wide variety of organizations across industries have used such systems successfully, and both the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Safety Council endorse their use.

The proposed rule would also authorize the FTA to inspect, investigate, and test the safety of transit operations in different localities around the country. Public transportation systems would have to provide the FTA with relevant documents for review, and the FTA could enter facilities to conduct an inspection after giving notice.

In addition to giving specific authorization for inspections, the proposed rule would provide the FTA with new mechanisms to respond to safety violations. If it finds problems, the FTA would be able to require more frequent oversight or reporting by individual public transportation agencies. The FTA would also be able to order a public transportation system receiving federal funding to create a corrective action plan or correct specific safety deficiencies with federal funding. The FTA could also withhold federal funds from systems engaging in a “pattern of practice which violate the Public Transportation Safety Program or applicable safety regulations.

If the FTA’s administrator determines that industry wide unsafe conditions are creating a significant hazard resulting in an emergency, the proposed rule would allow the administrator to issue a general directive following notice in the Federal Register. Additionally, the proposed rule would enable the FTA to issue a special directive aimed at a single public transportation agency or a group of transportation agencies, if the FTA finds that the particular organization is engaging in an unsafe practice creating a significant hazard.

The proposed rule also describes a National Public Transportation Safety Plan, which would be the FTA’s main method of communicating with transit system operators about how to keep their safety management systems up to date. It would likely contain safety performance criteria, definitions of what is required for equipment to be in good repair, requirements for certification training programs, best practices for implementing a safety management system, and other items necessary to improve public transportation systems.

In the next few months, the FTA plans to publish the full National Public Transportation Safety Plan in the Federal Register. Although the National Public Transportation Safety Plan is not a rulemaking, it will be open for public comment. Moving forward, the FTA would update the standards contained in the plan as needed.

The public may comment on the proposed rule until October 13, 2015.