You may be surprised to learn that local transit systems are largely unregulated. When you fly, your aircraft is heavily regulated for safety by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Your car is built according to detailed safety regulations put in place by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Amtrak trains are similarly regulated for safety by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). These various agencies are charged with enacting rules that reduce the likelihood of accidents as much as possible, and for improving the chance of riders/drivers surviving accidents when they occur. As an example, NHTSA regulates lighting standards to ensure your car is sufficiently visible to other drivers, but it also requires the presence of seat belts, air bags, etc., to hopefully save your life in an accident (if you use them).
Local transit agencies like the D.C. area’s MetroRail, however, don’t have a true regulatory agency. There is a Federal Transit Administration (FTA), but it has been granted essentially no regulatory authority. They conduct safety audits and publish recommendations, but local transit systems are not compelled to follow those recommendations.
After an air crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates, discovers the reasons for the crash, and develops recommendations that will reduce or eliminate the possibility of the same thing happening again. Most of the time, the FAA enacts the NTSB’s recommendations and makes them requirements for airlines and aircraft manufacturers to follow in the future. This process has, most likely, saved thousands of lives and has made our air transportation system mind-bogglingly safe for passengers.
Former NTSB head Jim Hall wrote in today’s Washington Post about the recent deadly MetroRail crash and what might have prevented it. Metro bears primary responsibility, since they wantonly disregarded the recommendations of the NTSB and FTA after previous incidents. However, we need to empower the FTA with regulatory authority akin to that enjoyed by the FAA and NHTSA. If the FTA had the authority to require compliance with NTSB recommendations following the 2004 Metro crash, Metro would have been forced to comply and the incident last month probably wouldn’t have been quite so severe. But it goes further than that. An empowered FTA could have taken the track circuit ‘flickering’ experienced by San Francisco’s BART system in the 1970s and used that knowledge to develop more stringent redundancy requirements for track circuit systems. A truly redundant, properly engineered system would likely have prevented last month’s incident entirely.