Rail Transit:

Additional Federal Leadership Would Enhance FTA's State Safety Oversight Program

GAO-06-821: Published: Jul 26, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2006.

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The U.S. rail transit system is a vital component of the nation's transportation infrastructure. Safety and security oversight of rail transit is the responsibility of state-designated oversight agencies following Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requirements. In this report, GAO addressed: (1) how the State Safety Oversight program is designed; (2) what is known about the program's impact; and (3) challenges facing the program. We also provide information about oversight of transit systems that cross state boundaries. To do our work we surveyed state oversight agencies and transit agencies covered by FTA's program.

FTA designed the State Safety Oversight program as one in which FTA, other federal agencies, states, and rail transit agencies collaborate to ensure the safety and security of rail transit systems. FTA requires states to designate an agency to oversee the safety and security of rail transit agencies that receive federal funding. Oversight agencies are responsible for developing a program standard that transit agencies must meet and reviewing the performance of the transit agencies against that standard. While oversight agencies are to include security reviews as part of their responsibilities, TSA also has security oversight authority over transit agencies. Officials from 23 of the 24 oversight agencies and 35 of the 37 transit agencies with whom we spoke found the program worthwhile. Several transit agencies cited improvements through the oversight program, such as reductions in derailments, fires, and collisions. While there is ample anecdotal evidence suggesting the benefits of the program, FTA has not definitively shown the program's benefits and has not developed performance goals for the program, to be able to track performance as required by Congress. Also, because FTA was reevaluating the program after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FTA did not keep to its stated 3-year schedule for auditing state oversight agencies, resulting in a lack of information to track the program's trends. FTA officials recognize it will be difficult to develop performance measures and goals to help determine the program's impact, especially since fatalities and incidents involving rail transit are already low. However, FTA has assigned this task to a contractor and has stated that the program's new leadership will make auditing oversight agencies a top priority. FTA faces some challenges in managing and implementing the program. First, expertise varies across oversight agencies. Specifically, officials from 16 of 24 oversight agencies raised concerns about not having enough qualified staff. Officials from transit and oversight agencies with whom we spoke stated that oversight and technical training would help address this variation. Second, transit and oversight agencies are confused about what role oversight agencies are to play in overseeing rail security, since TSA has hired rail inspectors to perform a potentially similar function, which could result in duplication of effort.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To reduce confusion among transit and oversight agencies about the role of TSA in transit security oversight and reduce the potential duplication of effort that would inconvenience transit agencies, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of TSA to coordinate with the Administrator of FTA to clearly articulate to state oversight agencies and transit agencies the roles and responsibilities of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) develops for its rail inspectors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: TSA is working on developing its role in transit security as it pertains to FTA's State Safety Oversight (SSO) program. TSA officials continue to attend FTA SSO meetings to discuss this issue. As TSA develops its role we will continue to follow how that role is articulated to state oversight and public transit agencies.

    Recommendation: In order to assure that FTA devotes an appropriate level of staff resources to the State Safety Oversight program, obtains sufficient information to evaluate the performance of the program, and supports state oversight agencies in adequately training their staff to perform their oversight duties, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FTA to assess whether oversight agency personnel are receiving adequate amounts of training to perform their activities effectively and, based on the results of this assessment, work with oversight agencies to develop a strategy to address any deficiencies they identify. This strategy should include developing an appropriate training curriculum, including training on conducting oversight for oversight agency staff and guidance to oversight agencies encouraging them to have their staff complete the training curriculum. If FTA determines that it does not have the authority to issue such guidance, it should seek such statutory authority from Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FTA has established a specific recommended training curriculum for State Safety Oversight officials. They are providing financial assistance to state officials to attend the training and are strongly recommending that each state require oversight staff to achieve certification as having completed the training successfully. If a state refuses to certify their staff, this could result in FTA giving a state a failing grade during a safety oversight audit.

    Recommendation: In order to assure that FTA devotes an appropriate level of staff resources to the State Safety Oversight program, obtains sufficient information to evaluate the performance of the program, and supports state oversight agencies in adequately training their staff to perform their oversight duties, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FTA to take advantage of the opportunity presented by having new program leadership to set short- and long-term goals for the program, along with measures to ensure that the program is making progress toward meeting those goals; develop performance goals for the agency's other approaches for evaluating the impact of this program on safety and security; and develop a plan for maintaining FTA's stated schedule of auditing oversight agencies at least once every 3 years.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 19, 2007, Annabelle Boyd, FTA contractor, and Michael Taborn, FTA Director of Safety and Security, stated the following at the annual Rail Safety conference in Minneapolis: While tracking safety performance is challenging since fatalities and incidents are low, FTA agrees with GAO that performance management and goals are necessary and beneficial. FTA has assigned the task to the Boyd, Caton, Grant contractor and will make auditing oversight agencies a priority in the future. Specifically, FTA has developed a Rail Transit Safety Action Plan with 10 specific goals, including reducing accidents due to fatigue, reducing collisions with pedestrians, and collecting better safety data. In addition, they have developed an audit schedule which will increase the frequency of the agencies' oversight audits to at least once every 3 years.

    Recommendation: To reduce confusion among transit and oversight agencies about the role of TSA in transit security oversight and reduce the potential duplication of effort that would inconvenience transit agencies, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of TSA to work with state oversight agencies to coordinate their security audits whenever possible and include FTA in this communication to help ensure effective coordination with these agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: TSA has yet to develop its role in audits of public transit agencies. As this role develops we will determine if and how it is coordinated with FTA's safety and security audits.

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