The Rail’s Edge
|Ben Giles||November 15th 2010|
|DC Metro Red Line Collision, 2009|
If you’re boarding a plane, cruise ship, ferry or Amtrak train, a federal government agency is watching out for your safety.
But if you’re a passenger on one of the nation’s 48 subways and light-rail train systems, there is no single authority with the power to set and enforce safety measures.
Rail systems like the Metro in Washington, D.C., New York City’s subways and the “L” in Chicago are governed by a patchwork of state agencies and committees, some more watchful than others.
In some states, the groups set up to oversee light rail have so little power as to be almost completely ineffective, according to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). They include the Tri-State Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C., and the Regional Transportation Authority in Chicago as well as the Texas, Utah and Wisconsin departments of transportation.
Most of the other 22 agencies that oversee the rest of the country’s rapid-transit rail systems have minimal oversight power.
At the same time, many of the nation’s subway and light-rail systems are aging. In Chicago, tracks laid 60 years ago are still in use. After a major derailment in 2006, investigators found rail ties that were rusted and broken and rails that had shifted, leaving dangerous gaps in the tracks.
The National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended that the Washington, D.C., transit system get rid of hundreds of rail cars, some of which are 30 years old. The Metro train that collided with a stopped train in June 2009 was composed entirely of the older cars. Nine people were killed in the crash, the deadliest in Metro’s history.
The nation’s seven largest transit rail systems are $50 billion behind on repairs, according to the FTA, and that has led to a growing number of accidents. Accidents caused by equipment failure increased 165 percent from 2003 to 2008, according to FTA data. In that same six-year period, train collisions rose 238 percent and derailments increased 62 percent. Most train deaths are the result of suicides, but 18 percent of the deaths during those years were the result of collisions.
Transit rail is still one of the safest modes of transportation. There are 0.2 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled on rail, compared to 1.42 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled in motor vehicles, according an FTA study.
But when a big accident happens, like the collision in Washington, D.C., last year, it refocuses concern on what safety officials believe are the root problems in the nation’s rapid-transit rail systems: weak and spotty oversight and aging infrastructure that could lead to future disasters.
Following the Metro crash, the NTSB issued 23 recommendations. Among them: a sweeping change to put the FTA in charge of safety for all the nation’s subways and light-rail systems.
A bill to do just that has been introduced in Congress, although it has yet to come to a vote. If the Public Transportation Safety Act of 2010 passes, the FTA will have regulatory power for the first time in its history. The agency at present doles out money for transportation but isn’t responsible for safety like other agencies under the Department of Transportation, such as the Federal Railroad Administration. States would, in essence, answer to a single federal agency for how they operate their rail systems for the first time.
“State oversight is often reactive,” said Richard Clark, director of consumer protection and safety at the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees all transit rail in the state. “Public attention is aroused too often only after catastrophic events and media attention.”
In anticipation of the bill passing, the FTA recently convened an advisory committee to consider how a new oversight system should work. The committee is made up of representatives from nearly two dozen transit agencies across the country.
Crash on the Red Line
On June 22, 2009, one subway train smashed into another on Washington, D.C.’s, popular Red Line. The force of the collision stripped the floor off the first car and threw the shell of the car forward on top of the stationary train in front of it. Some passengers were hurled from their seats while others were pinned beneath a maze of twisted metal. Eight passengers and the operator of the moving train were killed. At least 52 others were transported to hospitals for treatment of injuries.
“I think everyone in this region woke up the next day after that crash and said, ‘Who is responsible for looking after safety?’” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff told Congress during a hearing on the crash later that year. “There really was no one.”
In fact, there is an agency charged with overseeing the safety and security of the Washington Metro: the Tri-State Oversight Committee. But a FTA audit conducted after the crash was scathing in its assessment of the oversight committee and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The report listed 21 findings, including failure to set safety standards, conduct inspections, issue citations or influence the subway’s operations in any way.
Metro has taken steps to address safety issues since the crash, including pledging more money for safety programs and adding training for employees. However, Rogoff said that even if every one of the 21 suggestions was implemented, safety problems would remain.
“The overarching safety problem… will only be solved through top-to-bottom change in the safety culture and focus at Washington Metro,” he told the NTSB at a special hearing on the crash in February.
The NTSB’s investigation of the crash reached the same conclusion. While the direct cause of the collision was the failure of a segment of the Metro’s track circuits to detect trains, the bigger problem, the board said, was Metro’s lack of a “safety culture” reflected in the lack of standard inspections that could have prevented the accident. “Metro was on a collision course long before this accident,” said NTSB chair Deborah Hersman at a July hearing on the Red Line crash. “The only question was when Metro would have another accident.”
While some of the recommendations, such as replacing old rail cars, are expensive to implement, others are not, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. Making safety a priority “does not cost money; that costs effort, and it costs commitment and it costs follow-through,” she said in a statement to News21.
The safety issues facing Washington are repeated in other cities around the country.
Trouble in the Windy City
In July 2006, the eighth and final car of a “L” train on the Blue Line in downtown Chicago derailed, leaving about 1,000 passengers stranded in muddy, poorly lit tunnels that filled with smoke from a smoldering fire underneath the train. The train operator left his train to help dozens of passengers escape the tunnels. Hundreds of other passengers were left to find their own way up to the city streets. More than 150 people were treated for smoke inhalation and other injuries, the Chicago Fire Department reported.
An NTSB investigation found the derailment was caused by severely deteriorated tracks in the tunnels.
At a rail conference in Vancouver, Canada, in June, FTA safety director Mike Flanigon, who inspected the tunnels after the accident, described finding soaked and corroding rail ties and crumbling tracks. “You could reach down and pull screws out with your hand,” he said. The NTSB concluded that the accident could have been prevented if the Chicago Transit Authority, which operates the “L,” and its oversight agency, the Regional Transportation Authority, had done their jobs.
The “L” is the second longest and second oldest transit rail system in the U.S. It also carries the third most passengers of any such system each year—more than 198 million passenger trips over 1 billion miles in 2009 alone. The first parts of the system were built in the 1890s, and tracks for the Blue Line were laid about 60 years ago. Many of those tracks are still in place.
The Chicago Transit Authority maintenance records showed that the agency knew about the deteriorating tracks but did little to repair them or prevent derailments, according to the NTSB. The safety board found that the CTA didn’t give inspectors time to properly check the tracks, ignored previous findings about unsafe conditions, and was missing hundreds of maintenance records.
“This was a complete maintenance failure,” said Bill Mooney, former administrator of rail units and vehicle inspection at CTA. “We had an inspection process that was allegedly being done. The management people who were responsible in making sure that it was being done and doing the audits failed.”
The NTSB issued 14 findings suggesting ways safety could be improved in Chicago. It told the FTA that it should bolster its safety oversight program and advised the Illinois governor that the Regional Transit Authority needed real regulatory power if accidents are to be prevented.
Ten of the recommendations have been implemented. The RTA, for example, now has two full-time employees working on safety issues when before there were none, said Grace Gallucci, the authority’s deputy director of research.
But four recommendations, including improved track inspections and better training and record-keeping, remain open.
If proof was needed that problems remain on the “L,” it came in June, when sparks on the Red Line tracks ignited an underground fire. Smoke wafted through a stopped train while passengers tried to figure out what to do, said Lindsey Ball, a passenger on the train.
“We got to a stop, but we couldn’t tell we were at a stop because it was solid black, filled with smoke,” Ball said. As she struggled to make her way to the one set of stairs leading from the platform to the street above, Ball saw no CTA employees directing people to safety.
Meanwhile, CTA President Rich Rodriguez voiced his own complaint: The CTA didn’t have enough money to buy safer track grease, used to oil the tracks and make the ride smoother and quieter. It was the low-grade grease that ignited, according to the CTA’s investigation.
Money is a big problem for city and regional transit rail systems. The FTA reported this summer that it would take $50 billion to properly repair the largest systems, in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And it would take an additional $14.4 billion a year to keep all 48 of the nation’s systems in good repair.
Ian Savage, a transportation professor at Northwestern University, said it’s true that transit systems like the one in Chicago don’t have the money to fix tracks outright. But that’s not the biggest problem; Chicago’s transit authorities, like those in Washington, D.C., showed an almost complete disregard for safety. “It’s a bit like those cheap romance novels,” he said. “In each city the characters are different, but it’s the exact same storyline.”
The NTSB made its first recommendation about oversight of the nation’s transit systems in 1981, when it said the FTA should be given regulatory power to make sure systems are safe.
Since then, the NTSB’s position has shifted back and forth. In 1991, the board issued recommendations encouraging the states to self-regulate. The reasoning was that individual rail systems are so unique they need their own oversight agencies, said Bill Grizard, director of safety at the American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group for public transit agencies. “Even though they’re similar in the way they provide service, they’re much farther apart in the way they operate,” he said.
But in the wake of the Metro crash in Washington, D.C., Congress may revisit the idea of federal oversight. Legislation that would make the FTA responsible for all transit rail safety was proposed last November but has stalled in the Senate.
The Metro crash “really was the catalyst that brought everything together and made them see that they really did need to have a broader jurisdictional base like the other DOT agencies,” Kenneth Mead, former DOT inspector general, said in an interview. Under the bill, states would be able to continue providing their own oversight if they prove they can meet new, stringent safety standards to be developed by the FTA. States with large oversight agencies for multiple systems—as is the case with the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees 12 rail systems—would likely opt to continue operating their own systems.
Smaller agencies that oversee a single transit system, such as those in Chicago and Washington, might leave oversight to the FTA because it would be cheaper than hiring their own full-time safety staff, said Mooney, the former Chicago Transit Authority administrator.
The NTSB supports the legislation, as does the American Public Transportation Association, said Martin Schroeder, chief engineer for the association, which develops voluntary safety standards for transit rail.
“If our industry is not following our standards because we don’t have a club big enough, then get somebody who does,” he said.
Ben Giles writes for News21, from which this article is adapted.