A week ago the Obama administration proposed to take over safety regulation over commuter rail, subway, and light rail systems nationwide.  Federal law currently blocks such regulation, but proponents claim safety oversight is lax in most jurisdictions.  It later came out that this authority would eventually expand to buses.

The reaction from the transit community has been cautious. The man on the street has been extremely funny, as usual.  Locally, Sound Transit did not return two of our requests for comment.

Although it’s good that federal money would be attached, I see this as a dangerous path.*  Safety regulation has obvious benefits, but it can also impose unreasonable restrictions on operations, especially when written at a national level and ignorant of local conditions.  (Consider the history of federal regulation of intercity rail, or the Bush FTA’s heinous decision to effectively kill special bus service to sporting events.)  Even well-intentioned rules can end up putting more people in cars and therefore get more people killed.

Moreover, as with any regulatory power, in the wrong hands it can actively be used to destroy that which it regulates.  Most Americans are entirely car-dependent, and there are going to be times over the coming decades where a transit-hostile administration is in power. Let’s not give them a very effective tool to strangle rail transit.

* To be clear, my colleagues largely disagree with me on this issue.

24 Replies to “Obama Admin. Moves to Regulate Local Rail, Buses”

  1. It is very easy to imagine regulations that prevent theoretical accidents but which in fact drive up costs so as to reduce transit service, and thereby create deaths, injuries and illnesses that are not counted – like auto accidents and increased air pollution that are caused by people who divert from transit to automobiles.

    FRA regulations already add enormous amounts of weight to U.S. passenger rail. Europe and Japan don’t do this and focus on accident prevention instead. Even though there have been some bad accidents, so too have there been in the U.S. even with the FRA rules – and Europe and Japan have so many more passenger miles of traffic that their rates are lower, to speak nothing of the many people who choose to ride instead of drive.

    Cost of rules and the impact of these costs on mode choice, and the externalities caused by mode choice, should be a factor in such regulations.

  2. Three Questions:

    1. Has the Obama Administration repealed the rule forbidding public transit to special events yet?

    2. If not, why not?

    3. And also if not, what can we do to get those regs repealed?

    Current regulatory setup obviously doesn’t prevent bad Federal regulations, like the one on special events.

    A misbegotten piece of regulation out of a worse piece of legislation- one implemented by a Democratic adminsitration and the other passed by a Democratic congress- separated me permanently from thirteen years’ work as a Metro driver.

    There’s no reason Federal regulation has to be stupid and destructive just because it can be, anymore than a cholera epidemic is inevitable because there are germs. A democratic country just needs a political immune system.

    Mark Dublin

    Mark Dublin

      1. Sorry to say, highest union post I ever held was shop steward, for only one shakeup- and my whole term of service was Metro Transit in Seattle between 1982, and 1995.

        My greatest regret was not getting deeper into elected union politics- which is a major part of the immune system I’m talking about. Technically knowledgable, politically informed and organized citizens are a modern democracy’s strongest defense against every degenerative disease of government.

  3. I think the two main concerns I’ve heard so far are that the current FRA passenger rail regulations would be stupidly applied to Light Rail and Metro lines, and that we’d see more of the idiotic sort of rules that prohibit special event service. To be honest I hadn’t really thought about using safety rules to strangle transit by a transit-hostile administration. I suspect that fear may be a bit overblown as the FTA already had a lot of power over transit agencies by setting the rules for what qualified for Federal funding (I believe this is how the special event rules were enforced). I think the real problem might be more one of applying well-intentioned but ham-fisted rules nationally or without any common sense.

      1. That is if the FRA can get out of a Over Reactive response mode when an incident does happen. Of course that seems to be the hallmark of our country in general.

  4. I was always told that the FRA rules were ridiculously cautious compared to railroad safety rules in other countries, and that this really hamstrings Amtrak in some ways, and resulted in the incredibly and needlessly heavy locomotives used for Acela service. Is this true?

    1. I think it is the cars that need to be incredibly heavy – but yes the Acela trainsets are dramatically heavier than high speed trainsets anywhere else in the world. They are supposed to prevent casualties in a crash. My understanding is U.S. standards require absolute strength such that the car doesn’t bend, while European standards focus on absorbing the energy generated in a crash, which allows lighter structures.

      How much does the extra weight cost in construction of the cars, energy to accelerate them and haul them around, and wear on tracks? Is it worth it?

      Note that these U.S. standards don’t do much to help passengers of the Sunset that went off a bridge in a bayou, where many drowned, nor the passengers who were in the City of New Orleans that hit the truck in Illinois and suffocated in a fire.

      1. Martin – I hadn’t followed the link previously, but it is an excellent summary of the problems with FRA regulations. For others who might be motivated to read it, the title of the article is “How the FRA is Regulating Passenger Rail Out of Existence.”

        I highly recommend reading it.

  5. Robert Moses was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. Can you imagine if the same type of person could regulate rail and transit in the United States? A screenplay for a horror movie if I ever seen one. Be afraid, very afraid.

    1. No he wasn’t. I’m reading The Powerbroker right now; his close friend Al Smith was a candidate that year, but he most certainly wasn’t. In fact, I don’t believe he ever actually ran for office.

  6. Can someone please explain to me how an accident IN WASHINGTON DC shows that we need more Federal Oversight….?

    1. Well it’s not like because it’s in Washington, DC, it’s already controlled by the Feds… That accident and others lately around the country have shown that there needs to be more oversight.

      1. Who has oversight over DC if not the Feds? No state can claim sovereignty so any lack of oversight lays directly at the feet of the Feds.

        And I disagree that every perceived problem necessitates Federal action. We have a Constitution, enumerated powers, and the 10th Amendment for good reasons.

  7. Well this should come as no suprise to anyone who paid attention to what I’ve written here before. I do not think that this isa good idea. Federal bueracrats tend to have a one size fits all thinking about how things should be done. Also, I do not believe that the federal goverment has the authority to do this. Keep transit local. I am also against federal funding of transit. One reason is to keep the feds from sticking there foot in the door and taking control of transit.

    1. Whats wrong with the Boeing-Vertol Government Sponsored SLRV… Private Industry got it right with the PCC many years prior so why cant the government? Im afraid the Feds already have enough of their foot in the door by requiring costly ADA paratransit service, and not providing any supplimental operating funding for the service. Although they will provide some capital funding for it.

  8. Akandakos: And where does the Fed get it’s money? Well, besides China, where does the Fed get it’s money? From taxing the citizens of the States. We pay the Feds a dollar, then let them dictate state policy when they hand us back 80 cents*?

    Nice little racket they got there.

    *and from the Article it sounds like this is going to be another unfunded mandate… They make the rules, we pay the costs. Yipee!

  9. I can think offhand of several dozen places in our society, such as parks, bars, and sidewalks, that are more dangerous than riding transit. And don’t even get me started on hospitals! But Obama isn’t moving to regulate those…because he can’t. This is a classic case of picking a victim that can’t defend itself to regulate.

    There isn’t even a train-building industry to quarrel with proposed rules or be prevented from disastrous mistakes! At least this is one case where the regulated industry won’t take over the agency, because there’s no industry!

    Where is the problem to be solved? Why would I think a federal agency would prohibit texting by train drivers when truck drivers are required by their employers to constantly communicate by phone and computer while they drive.

    In fact, it would seem likely that providing funding to transit agencies to upgrade safety equipment might work better than providing funding for a new layer of supervision over under-funded transit agencies.

    And it’s not as though there’s any shortage of work to be done. The Bureau of Mine Safety is notoriously rotten. The Corps of Engineers routinely construct future natural disasters. The air traffic control system is on the verge of disintegration. The Border Patrol appears to have gone insane and routinely harasses citizens a hundred miles from the border. These agencies and more could use some heavy-handed supervision.

    But Obama holds the trump card- the safety card. Consider the proposed regulation a fait accompli and let the affected agencies prepare to deal with it.

Comments are closed.