July 5, 2010
The 14 help wanted ads in this week's classifieds offer such jobs as a transit agency general manager and an executive director in academia!
With Rail Safety Issues, ‘You Never Stop Training’
BY CHUCK McCUTCHEON, Special to Passenger Transport
As the federal government seeks an increased role in rail safety, public transit systems are making their own improvements and assessing the impact of new government mandates.
Recent incidents have led transit systems to take a number of steps ranging from installing new crashworthy trains to upgrading worker training. Some have instituted their own safety measures—the most active of which has been the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, operator of Metrolink commuter rail, recovering from two accidents—in 2005 and 2008. Earlier this year, Metrolink took delivery of the first of 117 Korean-made crash energy management-enabled cars featuring crash-absorbing, collapsible impact zones. Last year, Metrolink also put in place outward and inward video cameras in all locomotive cabs.
John Fenton, Metrolink’s new chief executive officer, stressed the “real strict correlation” he sees “between how well a company runs and how well they perform safety. What I’m trying to do now is implement an attitude of continuous improvement.”
The Regional Transportation District (RTD) in Denver installed approximately $3 million worth of safety improvements, including automatic train-stopping technology for the light rail system. RTD officials also tightened their policies on worker cell-phone usage, conducted more safety spot checks, and used $5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to install an intrusion detection system to serve as a warning on derailments.
David Genova, RTD’s assistant general manager for safety, said operators are being put through a refresher course on safety. The agency has also installed emblems and stickers on its entire fleet of buses and trains to raise public awareness.
Paul O’Brien, rail service general manager for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) in Salt Lake City, said his agency has been constantly reviewing its training policies. “We started out with good training, but one of the things we’ve learned is that you never stop training,” he said.
Federal Oversight Legislation
In response to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority accident in June 2009 and others, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee; ranking minority member Richard Shelby (R-AL); and transportation subcommittee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a safety reform bill last week (unanimously approved in committee) that would give the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) the first-ever regulatory authority over heavy and light rail as well as buses. The legislation also would provide federal funds to State Safety Oversight agencies for hiring, training, inspections, and other safety-related activities.
Despite Congress’ crowded election-year legislative agenda, FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff told Passenger Transport that “we think that a bill focused on as critical a need as safety cannot wait.”
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also has announced the 20 members of the Transit Rail Advisory Committee for Safety, a newly formed panel that will assist FTA with developing national safety standards for rail transit; committee members represent transit systems, unions, state DOTs, and other agencies and associations.
At the same time, Rogoff said his agency has begun exploring how it will grow if it is granted expanded regulatory authority. “Our goal is not to create the FRA rulebook; we want to make sure we address the unique safety challenges and not think that we can dictate within the Beltway what we want,” he said. “We want Dallas and Salt Lake City to focus on what their greatest vulnerabilities might be, and it may be a different answer whether you’re looking at Salt Lake City or Dallas.”
The legislation includes a number of elements that APTA President William Millar, in testimony before Congress, noted that the industry wanted, such as adequate staffing and training for FTA and basing rail safety regulations on APTA consensus-based standards.
Positive Train Control
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) already has legislative authority to provide safety oversight of commuter rail. After the Metrolink accident in 2008, Congress directed FRA to step up safety efforts regarding commuter rail operations through a law calling for all trains carrying passengers or dangerous chemicals to be equipped with positive train control (PTC) systems by 2015.
FRA is reviewing the PTC implementation plans submitted by systems by the April 16, 2010 deadline, said Grady Cothen, deputy associate administrator for safety standards and regulations. “In general, I think everybody has done a workmanlike job in trying to identify their path to PTC by 2015 as required by statute,” Cothen said. “We’ll be having conversations with [applicants] and, if we have issues that we need to work out, we’ll talk to them.”
The regulation is expected to cost the transit industry more than $2 billion for the necessary hardware. Many transit agencies—and their representatives in Congress—are struggling to identify where to come up with that much money.
“Everybody has a little bit of anxiety because there are some things that are a little bit unclear,” said UTA’s O’Brien.
Matt Tucker, executive director of the North County Transit District (NCTD) in Oceanside, CA, which operates the Coaster and Sprinter rail systems, said a consultant estimated the agency’s potential capital cost alone from $60 million to $90 million. An expense of that size could result in other projects being delayed, he noted, such as replacing several bridges that are at least 75 years old.
“If we don’t get federal money, PTC takes about 90 percent of our available capital program,” Tucker said. “We’ve started getting the message out and talking to our congressional delegation and the feds. We’re trying to offer suggestions for what to do—extend the requirements, have pilot projects. We’re in support of increased safety, but like everything else we have to evaluate what are the best projects for it.”
For now, FRA is making available $50 million in rail safety technology grants using Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 appropriations.
FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies at an April 29 hearing that, instead of providing grants to a single railroad or combination of railroads, he hopes the $50 million can be used “for those kinds of things that can be broadly shared” and benefit the industry as a whole. That approach, he said, was part of the reason FRA did not seek any PTC-related funding in FY 2011.
Szabo also told lawmakers that funding could potentially be made available for passenger railroads through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, in addition to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program. “We do believe there are some options out there,” he said.
Joe Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Pompano Beach, FL, and APTA’s vice chair-commuter and intercity rail, said giving out loans “makes sense for a freight railroad,” but not “for a passenger system that lives year-to-year” in terms of how much flexibility it has in its budget.
Christopher Boylan, APTA vice chair, management and finance, is the deputy executive director, corporate and community affairs, for New York State's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the two largest and busiest commuter railroads in the nation—MTA Long Island Rail Road and MTA Metro-North Railroad. He said: “Surely a lot more money is needed, but there are also a host of technical and logistical issues ahead of us that need to be resolved in order for us to achieve our PTC implementation goals. Developing PTC technologies that can be proven to reliably work in high-density commuter rail applications and securing sufficient radio spectrum to operate PTC systems in those environments will most certainly be equally challenging.”
Safety Programs Also Focus on Bus Systems
Some recent steps taken to make rail transit safer—such as creating an improved safety culture--also will benefit bus systems, according to several transit agency officials.
Matt Tucker, executive director of the North County Transit District in Oceanside, CA, said his agency has started taking “a more systematic approach to safety” to encompass its entire fleet of buses and trains. “We’re starting to look at all of our policies to make sure we’re enforcing safety, and the intent is to bring that same protocol and discipline to the bus side,” he said.
At Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), officials are doing something similar: putting bus workers through safety refresher courses and rolling out a new poster and banner campaign stressing safety on both buses and trains, said David Genova, assistant general manager for safety.
“We’re also doing more with management visibility, making more direct contact with operators on the street,” Genova said.
The evolution and integration of video camera systems and the development of tracking technology can apply equally to buses and trains, said Joe Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Pompano Beach, FL, and APTA’s vice chair-commuter and intercity rail. “You’re seeing some of the same things going on with buses that you see with rail,” he explained.
Several cities, including Cleveland and Houston, are using technology to alert pedestrians when buses are turning. And Miami has been at the forefront of developing barrier doors to protect bus drivers from flying debris.
FTA has been given the legislative authority to regulate buses, but FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff said his focus for now is on rail, given the greater speeds at which trains travel and the larger number of passengers they carry.
“It’s not clear that we would regulate bus safety in the way we are trying to regulate rail safety,” he said. Rogoff added, however: “When it comes to the State of Good Repair, we are equally focused on bus and rail. There are a good many needs.”