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Thursday, October 21, 2021
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GAO: Identifying Lessons Learned Could Improve Transportation Safety

After a series of catastrophic and high-profile incidents, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was tasked with playing a larger role in overseeing safety for public transportation.

After a series of catastrophic and high-profile incidents, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was tasked with playing a larger role in overseeing safety for public transportation. It now works with transit agencies to develop data-driven safety plans, among other activities.

FTA requires transit agencies to develop new safety plans that incorporate Safety Management Systems (SMS) to manage and mitigate safety risk. FTA also incorporated SMS in its transit agency oversight to better identify and assess safety risks, and determine appropriate mitigation efforts, including mandatory safety standards.

To assess how FTA is implementing its responsibilities, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) spoke with twelve selected transit agencies and found that most faced challenges incorporating FTA requirements to develop and document its SMS in their new agency safety plans. Some rail transit agencies noted difficulties transitioning from the former 21-element safety plan to SMS and its four required components. However, most transit agencies said they benefited from FTA’s assistance. FTA’s assistance included guidance documents, webinars, and training. Upon request, FTA also reviewed transit agencies’ draft safety plans, providing lessons learned from those reviews.

FTA established a Safety Risk Management (SRM) process to identify, assess, and mitigate safety risks across the nation’s transit agencies. During the initial implementation, FTA selected four safety concerns to review. According to FTA, the use of cameras on rail transit was a pilot project, and FTA has completed four of the five steps in its process for the camera safety pilot. Though FTA continues to evaluate that pilot and work on the other three safety concerns, GAO’s review found it has not completed actions to prepare for future rounds of the SRM process. In particular, GAO was concerned that FTA has not identified and documented lessons learned from the pilot. 

Developing and maintaining a “safety culture” at a transit agency has also been a challenge, according to eight of the twelve transit agencies GAO spoke with. Officials from more than half of the agencies said they had to make organizational changes to better implement a safety culture, such as setting up employee hotlines, conducting employee surveys, or greater communication to staff from upper management.

FTA is continuing to gather information while considering whether to mandate certain transit safety standards. FTA has issued safety bulletins for rail cameras and end-of-railcar signage, which suggest but do not require certain actions related to the installation of cameras and signage in rail transit cars. GAO adds that FTA has not yet initiated a rulemaking for any mandatory federal safety standards. The watchdog said that the transit agencies it spoke with were generally open to mandatory safety standards for some safety issues. For example, many of the selected transit agencies expressed support for requiring medical examinations of employees, as well as other so-called human-factor safety risks.

FTA concurred with GAO’s sole recommendation that it identify and document lessons learned from the camera safety concern pilot project, including a plan for implementing those lessons in the SRM process.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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