U.S. News

Government wants to oversee safety for subways, light rail

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration plans to propose that the U.S. government oversee safety for subway and light rail systems, a move prompted in part by the deadly collision of two trains in Washington this year.

People work at the scene where two transit trains were involved in a crash in Washington June 22, 2009. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

According to a draft of the plan to be formally unveiled in coming weeks, the Transportation Department would either enforce safety regulations itself or grant states the option to do so under its guidance and financial assistance.

No cost estimate was provided and Congress would have to approve the proposal.

The administration has concluded that the government’s ability to insure transit safety is weak at a time when ridership is increasing and state budgets for maintaining and enforcing their own regulations are tightening.

State agencies responsible for transit safety often have few staff, little expertise, inadequate independence from transit systems they oversee and limited legal authority, federal officials said.

A 1965 law prohibits the federal government from overseeing safety regulations for subways. At the time, there were only a few systems nationwide.

New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Boston have the five largest public transit systems in the United States. They accounted for more than half of the 10 billion passenger trips in 2007, according to the latest industry statistics.

Public transit ridership grew 38 percent from 1995 to 2008, the figures show. The Obama administration wants to expand ridership to reduce road congestion and cut gasoline use.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spearheaded the plan to boost federal oversight following the June collision of two subway trains in Washington that killed nine people and injured dozens of others.

Other accidents in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and track worker fatalities in Washington also factored in the decision, Transportation Department planners said.

Transportation Department agencies already oversee safety for Amtrak long distance rail service as well as freight and commuter rail systems. Airline and auto safety are also regulated by the federal government.

Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Todd Eastham