The 2009 Washington Metro collision, which killed 9 and injured, is an example of what Dr. John Adams calls a low-frequency, high-impact event.
These types of events provoke over-response from political leaders to “do something”. Their counter-productive solution to the “problem” always fails even the most minimal cost-benefit analysis.
The Obama administration will propose that the federal government take over safety regulation of the nation’s subway and light-rail systems, responding to what it says is haphazard and ineffective oversight by state agencies. The proposal would affect every subway and light-rail system in the country, including large systems in Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“After the [Metro] train crash, we were all sitting around here scratching our heads, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this,’ ” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview.
Certainly, there was no doubt that the Washington Metro accident was entirely preventable. Engineers had known for decades that the automatic train control system was faulty. Metro’s grossly incompetent managers failed in their basic duty to protect public safety, even in the face of numerous warnings about flaws in the system.
But just because a single transit agency in the US had ongoing management lapses, does that mean the best solution requires Federal takeover of all safety functions in all transit districts in all 50 states? Is that even feasible, or desirable?
Under the administration’s plan, states would be allowed to maintain oversight of their transit systems as long as they could demonstrate that they have enough fully-trained staff members to enforce federal safety rules.
This plan is similar to how the FRA currently functions; i.e. as classic example of unfunded Federal mandate.
The FTA bureaucrat gets to invent “safety” rule, and the transit agencies are forced to implement — regardless of whether the rule makes sense for a particular operation. The FTA only pays for the safety inspector, and not the costs to purchase new equipment to comply with any screwy new rule.
For older systems using lots of legacy equipment (like New York or San Francisco) it would necessitate billions in new costs with negligible benefit. Imagine having to retrofit a rooftop emergency portal into a cable car. Or replacing 30-year-old NYC subway cars because it does not have FTA-compliant anti-climber attachments.
Given their historic hostility to public transit, how odd to see Republicans on the right side of the issue:
Representative John L. Mica of Florida, the senior Republican on the committee, said he would prefer to see tougher state regulations and more federal financing to help states enforce them. He noted that transit systems vary enormously in size and operations and he questioned whether a single federal agency could or should supervise all of them.