Oversight of Rail Rapid Transit Safety

Annually, about 1.8 billion passengers ride on the rail rapid transit systems operating in the United States. The 10,500 cars in use on these systems travel about 523 million miles annually. During peak operating hours, one rail rapid transit train can carry as many as 1,000 to 1,500 passengers. Although rail rapid transit is generally a safe form of transportation, the potential exists for a catastrophic loss of life in the event of a collision, derailment, fire, or other emergency involving the evacuation of passengers.

The Safety Board has been concerned about the safety of rail rapid transit operations and has addressed the issue of oversight responsibility during the past 2 decades as a result of its special studies and investigations of accidents involving rail rapid transit systems. Although the Safety Board had concluded in the early 1980s that regulation and enforcement of transit system safety could be handled by the States, with the Federal government providing a measure of oversight through the investigation of accidents, incidents, or conditions that could affect the safety of passengers, the lack of action taken by the Stated governments in responce to Board recommendations and the occurrence of more accidents in the mid- and late 1980s in which safety oversight was raised as an issue prompted the Board to undertake a study to examine the adequacy of current oversight of rail rapid transit safety. The study addresses the additional actions needed to improve the oversight of rail rapid transit safety.

The safety issues discussed in this study are:

  • the effectiveness of current oversight activities exercised by the District of Columbia and States in which rail rapid transit systems are operating;
  • the preciseness of rail rapid transit accident/injury data; and
  • the Federal government's role in the oversight of rail rapid transit safety.


As a result of this study, recommendations were issued to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration of the Department of Transportation, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, and to the District of Columbia and States in which rail tapid transit systems are currently operating. The recommendations focus on an effective oversight program of rail rapid transit safety.