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American Public Transportation Association

 Media Advisory



Virginia Miller
(202) 496-4816

 Backgrounder on Rail Transit Safety


Rail Transit:  One of the Safest Ways to Travel

Public transportation is one of the safest ways to travel. 
It is much safer to ride in a rail transit vehicle than to ride in an automobile. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), over the past six years (2003-2008), there has been an annual average of nearly 42,000 highway fatalities, of which nearly 32,000 were motor vehicle occupants.  In contrast, there has been an annual average of one passenger fatality on heavy rail (subway).  And there was no passenger fatality on light rail transit (streetcars, trolleys) in this six year period.

According to the U.S. DOT, the average fatality rate per 100 million passenger miles for motor vehicles is 1.419 from 2002-2008.  In contrast, the passenger fatality rate per 100 million passenger miles for heavy rail is 0.010 and the passenger fatality rate for light rail is 0.008.

In other words, a person is many, many times safer as a passenger riding in a rail transit vehicle compared to a passenger riding in a motor vehicle.

Safety is the number one priority of the public transportation industry.
With safety as the number one priority, public transit systems around the country have numerous safety programs to ensure that the millions of people who take public transportation every day are safe.

Individual transit systems have established system safety plans and programs that set their strategies for providing safe services and work environments including key elements such as employee training, rules and procedures, and safety inspections. All of these programs work to create a culture of safety throughout the public transit agencies.

Rail Safety Audit Management Program
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Rail Safety Audit Management Program, which assesses rail safety management at transit systems, is recognized and utilized on both a national and international level.  It provides an objective analysis of an individual transit system’s safety programs and constantly raises the bar for safety excellence through benchmarking and sharing industry best practices. Since its inception, the audit program has been applied to 75 APTA member transit agencies and more than 415 audits have been conducted in the past 20 years.

Safety Peer Reviews
In conjunction with the audit program, APTA has undertaken peer reviews for public transit agencies for more than 25 years.  APTA’s peer reviews draw upon subject matter experts to assist public transit agencies with a wide range of needs and issues including:  safety practices reviews; post-incident reviews; reviews of maintenance practices; technical training reviews; operations assessments; and management organizational reviews.

APTA Safety Standards
Recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a Standards Development Organization (SDO), APTA has developed 96 standards for heavy rail and light rail in conjunction with public transit industry professionals, technical experts, labor representatives, the federal government and other professional organizations, such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). APTA rail transit standards cover all major categories of operations including: vehicle inspection and maintenance, track inspection and maintenance, signals and communications, rail operating practices, grade crossings, and employee hours of service.  APTA collaborated with ASME in the development of a rail car crashworthiness standard for heavy rail; this was published by ASME in late 2008.

New APTA rail standards that further protect roadway workers, add better emergency lighting design and emergency procedures, and provide effective use of emergency exits should be published early in 2010.  In order to meet the highest levels of safety, APTA also revisits published standards as part of its continuous review to incorporate the latest knowledge and practice.

APTA standards are developed with thorough consensus building criteria patterned after the development practices of the American National Standards Institute and are open to public review and comment before publication. Since the public transit industry and its many experts participate in the standards development process, and given their broad understanding and expertise of transit systems, the APTA standards represent the best practices in the industry and are accepted by the industry among transit systems and transit suppliers.

Safety Research
In addition to the programs mentioned above, APTA participates in research for industry issues through the Transportation Research Board’s Transit Cooperative Research Program, and develops in-house resources and guidance through safety committees, technical forums and conferences. Throughout the years, the public transit industry has worked in close partnership with FTA and the Transportation Research Board to provide a number of additional safety resources and guidance documents.

The public transportation industry is continuously working to make a safe industry even safer.  APTA looks forward to working with Congress and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in continuing to improve safety in an already very safe industry.  As legislation is developed APTA encourages the following principles to be included:

  • We encourage the FTA to use the APTA consensus-based standards as the foundation for any federal regulation for rail transit safety. Where feasible, standards should be performance-based rather than prescriptive to accommodate local conditions and diverse operations, as well as to foster innovation in technologies and problem solving.
  • Any federal program to establish rail transit standards by regulation should incorporate federal preemption to ensure that efforts at the state level remain concentrated on identified national safety priorities.
  • If new regulations add significant new costs, the federal government should pay for these additional costs. Public transportation systems do not have extra money in their budgets to accommodate unfunded federal mandates. 
  • To support transit agency adoption and implementation of standards, specific new federal funding should be established, that can only be used for projects that bring systems up to the level needed to successfully implement the safety standards, and for state-of-good repair projects that improve system safety.
  • Although the existing State Safety Oversight (SSO) program is uneven in its effectiveness, starting with the SSO program is the most expeditious and cost effective way for FTA to strengthen rail transit safety oversight. In order for a strengthened SSO program to be successful, there needs to be: adequate and consistent staffing and training; consistent standards for monitoring and auditing; a consistent appeals process; and adequate federal funding support.
  • FTA should consider other federal models, where states can become certified to administer a federally mandated oversight program, and receive compensation to do so.  If a state chose to opt out, FTA would need to provide direct safety oversight of transit operations in that state.
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