US Department of Transportation

Spring 2009

Rail Transit Safety

Quarterly Newsletter


3 Oversight of Rail Transit Agency Rules Compliance Monitoring

6 Improving Safety Culture


Mike Flanigon, FTA Director, Office of Safety and Security

On August 20, 2008, Susan Schruth, Associate Administrator for Program Management, announced that Mr. Mike Flanigon had been selected as FTA’s next Director of Safety and Security. Mike joined the Office of Safety and Security from FTA’s Office of Research, Innovation and Demonstration where he was the Director of the Office of Technology. He has been involved in the transportation industry for over thirty-five years, and began his career as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad where he also worked as a switchman, conductor, locomotive engineer and operating rules instructor.

Photo - Mike Flanigon

From his first days with Southern Pacific, Mike developed a keen interest in system safety and security that has continued to grow over his career. He first became involved with safety issues as a safety steward in United Transportation Union Local 100. He also gained unique insight into the industry’s many safety issues working in both the private and public sectors and at local, state and Federal government levels. Prior to his federal career, Mike held responsibility in the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) rail safety oversight program, and worked as both the Environmental Health and Safety Manager and Light Rail Way Power & Signal Maintenance Superintendent for the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in San Jose, California. He also served as the Chief Safety Officer for San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). He entered federal service in 2001 with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) where he served as Investigator-in-Charge on several high-profile railroad and rail transit investigations. In 2003 he was recognized by NTSB as the Regional Investigator of the Year for his work in improving transportation safety. He is a Senior Associate with the Transportation Safety Institute and has taught courses in Rail System Safety and Rail Accident Investigation since 1993. In addition, Mike holds a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology from California State University in Los Angeles and a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

The following interview was conducted on March 9, 2009 to learn more about Mike and the Office of Safety and Security’s priorities for the coming year.

What do you feel are the top priorities for the Office of Safety and Security over the coming year?

Mike Flanigon (MF): The goal of FTA’s Safety and Security Program is to achieve the highest practical level of safety and security for all modes of transit. Where Congress has given us a specific task, as in the Drug/Alcohol and State Safety Oversight programs, we are responsible for ensuring that we are carrying it out as effectively as possible. In safety, this means trying to help the state oversight agencies and the industry identify and resolve issues before they result in accidents or other losses. Recent fatalities among right-of-way workers remind us that we can and must do better to resolve hazards before they impact employees, passengers or the system itself.

What is the Office of Safety and Security doing to achieve these priorities?

MF: First, we want to get good data to determine the effectiveness of our programs and projects. To support this effort, we recently began a data management project to answer a number of key questions including:

Through this task we’re seeking to prove to ourselves and to others that our programs add value and are meeting their intended purposes. If the data indicates otherwise, we will make the necessary changes to ensure improved performance.

How will your background and experiences serve you in this new position?

MF: At accident scenes with NTSB, I have witnessed first-hand the catastrophic results of failures in the systems that are meant to assure safety. As a result, I’m driven towards a proactive approach that seeks to improve systems before accidents can occur. Throughout my career, working as a unionized front-line employee as well as in management, training, safety, operations, and maintenance roles, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to view the transit industry from several perspectives and believe I can positively impact a number of projects. I feel that my background has given me the ability to communicate and work well with the industry and its employees. I look forward to the challenges ahead.

What changes do you see occurring in the industry and how are they impacting safety and security?

MF: An area that continues to grow is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Transit agencies that operate BRT are recognizing that their bus operations are becoming more like those of rail transit with dedicated rights-of-way, reduced headways between buses, increased passenger loads, and greater passenger occupancy at stations. Each of these factors increases exposure and accident potential and necessitates that we ensure that strong system safety and security practices are being implemented. Each new challenge is an opportunity to improve.

The stimulus package will also impact the safety and security of the industry in several ways. First, with increased funding, there may now be opportunities to support projects that improve transit safety and security. Second, the stimulus package may also help the industry to move forward with its State of Good Repair initiatives. As transit agencies begin to repair and upgrade their systems and facilities, and as state and local governments work to do the same to improve infrastructure, transit agencies will need to remain cognizant of the impact that extensive renewal projects have on their operations. This could place an additional burden on the industry’s safety systems and programs, and will require greater awareness and oversight to avoid accidents.

Oversight of Rail Transit Agency Rule Compliance Monitoring

49 CFR Part 659.17(m) requires State Safety Oversight (SSO) Agencies to require the rail transit agencies under their jurisdiction to include in their System Safety Program Plans (SSPP) a description of the processes used by the rail transit agency to develop, maintain, and ensure compliance with rules and procedures having a safety impact. This must include:

In addition to ensuring the rail transit agency has included the above information in its SSPP, the SSO Agency must also oversee the rule compliance and monitoring process of the rail transit agency to ensure it is actually be administered as stated in the SSPP.

For over a decade, FTA has conducted triennial audits of the SSO and rail transit agencies subject to the requirements of 49 CFR Part 659. Findings from these audits have regularly indicated the industry’s difficulty with meeting the rule compliance requirements of Part 659. As a result of these findings, FTA has developed the following to provide insight into the topic of rule compliance, the different methods and processes used by rail transit agencies to monitor rule compliance, and the mechanisms used by SSO Agencies to oversee these processes.

The Rule Compliance Process

Rule compliance is perhaps one of the most important aspects of establishing an effective system safety program. Indeed, industry accident statistics and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation findings and recommendations have cited rule violations as the primary or contributing causes of many of the rail transit industry’s most recent and severe accidents. Moreover, as the demand for public transit continues to grow and the institutional knowledge of the rail transit industry’s most experienced professionals continues to be stretched thin across more and more new start projects and system expansions, the need for strong rule compliance programs will continue to grow.

As a result of these factors, it is no surprise that the rail transit industry dedicates so much time and effort each year to monitoring and trying to improve employee rule compliance. Rail transit agencies from across the country have developed standards for managing employee efficiency checks, expended immeasurable resources to enhance employee training and certification programs, spent countless man-hours conducting unannounced inspections and audits of employee work activities, administered new, positive reinforcement techniques for addressing rule violations when they occur, and have worked tirelessly to improve the other safety aspects of their operations in an attempt to prevent future rule violations. Regardless of the approach taken, it is clear that each of these methods, whether used alone or in combination, can greatly improve rule compliance within an agency, regardless of its size, location, or types of operations.

It is certain that many methods for improving rule compliance exist. Yet, rail transit agencies continue to struggle with identifying the methods that would be most useful to their own systems. In addition, SSO Agencies continue to be challenged with overseeing these processes within the constraints of limited time and resources. FTA and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) have recognized this issue and in response APTA has developed the APTA Standard for Rule Compliance (APTA RT-S-OP-011-04) . This standard, available for download on APTA’s website (, applies to both heavy rail and light rail systems and is intended to outline “the basic elements of a rule compliance program needed to verify adherence to operating rules.”

The first step in the rule compliance process, and the first requirement stated in APTA’s Standard for Rule Compliance, is for the rail transit agency to establish a “written expression” of the policies and practices conveyed in general and specialized rulebooks, operating bulletins, special orders, standard and emergency operating procedures and other similar documents. In essence, the rail transit agency must first identify the rules to which its employees will be held accountable. The APTA Standard also requires that the rail transit agency develop a formal “process of observations to evaluate and verify that rules are followed.”

These same requirements are conveyed by 49 CFR Part 659.17(m). This section requires rail transit agencies to not only identify in their SSPPs the operating and maintenance rules and procedures subject to review, but also the techniques used to assess the implementation and effectiveness of operating and maintenance rules and procedures, including supervision’s enforcement of these rules and procedures.

APTA’s Standard for Rule Compliance next requires that each rail transit agency define the rule compliance requirements it will use to verify and evaluate if rules are being followed. At a minimum, these requirements must address:

The methods of verification used by each rail transit agency to monitor rule compliance should be based on the unique characteristics and features of the agency’s own operations. In all cases, APTA’s Standard for Rule Compliance requires that observations be “performed in a methodical, objective manner.” This requires the rail transit agency to develop specific instructions for conducting compliance checks that include the use of standardized forms, checklists, or other mechanisms.

Compliance checks must include observations of rail transit agency personnel performing their job duties. Individuals responsible for conducting rule compliance observations must therefore have the appropriate level of training and experience necessary to ensure they are capable of easily identifying violations. They must also know and understand the actions to be taken to appropriately and immediately correct adverse behaviors and rule violations. Finally, they must know, understand and use the methods the rail transit agency has defined for documenting the results of the rule compliance process. This must include documentation of observations, findings, and corrective actions taken.

As required by 49 CFR Part 659.17(m), this must also include how the rail transit agency incorporates the results of its rule compliance processes into its hazard management program.

SSO Agencies have a number of tools available to monitor and oversee the rule compliance processes of the rail transit agencies under their jurisdiction.

10 Quick Questions SSO Agencies Can Ask to Evaluate RTA Rule Compliance Processes

To gain an immediate sense of a rail transit agency’s rule compliance processes, the SSO Agency can ask the following questions:

  1. Is the rail transit agency familiar with APTA’s Standard for Rule Compliance, RT-S-OP-011-04?
  2. Is the rail transit agency’s rule compliance process adequately described in its SSPP and does this description meet the requirements of 49 CFR Part 659.17(m)?
  3. Has the rail transit agency written a specific policy or procedure that standardizes its rule compliance process through the use of forms, checklists or other mechanisms?
  4. Has the rail transit agency formally identified and documented the rules, procedures, job classifications, and job functions subject to the rule compliance process?
  5. Has the rail transit agency formally identified the individuals and departments responsible for administering its rule compliance process?
  6. Has the rail transit agency established minimum qualifications for these individuals and departments to ensure they are capable of safely administering its rule compliance process?
  7. Has the rail transit agency defined evaluation cycles for the rule, procedures, job classifications and job functions subject to the rule compliance process?
  8. Has the rail transit agency established formal record keeping policies to ensure the results from the rule compliance process are completely and accurately documented?
  9. Has the rail transit agency defined how the results of its rule compliance process will be incorporated into its hazard management program?
  10. Are findings and corrective actions developed through the rail transit agency’s rule compliance process entered into the agency’s hazard tracking and corrective action logs?

Improving Safety Culture

FTA’s Office of Safety and Security is tasked with providing the leadership and vision necessary for the transit industry to develop and manage initiatives that will continually improve the safety and security of its passengers, employees, and all others who come into contact with public transit systems. In fulfilling this task, FTA has long emphasized the importance of management commitment to building and sustaining effective safety programs within the transit environment. Transit managers from across the nation have responded strongly to this recommendation to ensure the public transit industry remains one of the safest forms of travel available in the U.S.

Consistent with its leadership role, FTA has recently started promoting the concept “safety culture” as a key attribute to improving overall transit safety and operational performance. Although much has been written and said about this topic, it’s a relatively new concept to the transit industry. As such, many within the industry continue to raise questions regarding what it means to have a strong safety culture, how such a culture can benefit their organizations, and what steps can be taken to begin the process of improving the safety cultures of their organizations.

In the September 2008 issue of Metro Magazine, Mr. Levern McElveen, Safety Team Leader for FTA’s Office of Safety and Security, addressed the topic of safety culture, commenting that a strong safety culture can enhance “organizational performance by energizing and motivating employees to unite around a shared goal.” 1 This is done by establishing safety as a top priority, by making every individual and level of the transit organization personally responsible for safety, and by maintaining a commitment to continuous improvement— no small task . For many transit agencies, improving their safety culture requires changing behaviors and processes that have become engrained over decades of service. To understand what it means to have a strong safety culture, transit agencies must therefore first understand the current state of their safety programs, including how employees perceive management’s commitment to safety. This can be quickly measured by examining the extent to which individuals and groups within the transit agency will:

While this provides a qualitative measure of safety program performance, transit managers should also measure quantitative performance indicators by examining:

Although cursory in nature, the results of these preliminary assessments not only provide insight into the health of the agency’s safety program, but also enable transit managers to identify leading indicators of problem areas that can then be proactively addressed. Once transit managers have an idea of how their current safety programs are performing, they can begin to make the changes necessary to improve performance. Transit agencies should accomplish this by focusing first on the following six principles necessary for building a strong safety culture:

As indicated throughout the above principles, the ability and desire to proactively eliminate hazards sits at the very core of a strong safety culture and is perhaps its greatest benefit because it challenges all members of the organization to make positive contributions to improving safety before accidents can occur. Other benefits of a strong safety culture include reduced accident and injury rates, improved operational performance, increased employee morale and productivity, lower insurance premiums, and greater customer service and satisfaction.

Although more questions related to the concept of safety culture are sure to exist, FTA hopes that the above discussion has been beneficial, and at a minimum has provided a basic understanding of the concept. FTA will continue to promote the safety culture concept and over the coming months will work to provide additional information and guidance to support the industry as its many transit agencies work to develop and improve their own safety culture.

1 Metro Magazine, “Proactive Programs Key to Rail Safety,” September 2008. 2008/09/Proactive-Programs-Key-To-Rail-Safety.aspx.

We Want Your Feedback

To provide feedback pertaining to this issue of the FTA Rail Transit Safety Quarterly Newsletter; to obtain additional information pertaining to any of the topics discussed in this issue; or to request that a specific topic of interest to your organization be discussed in upcoming issues, please contact:

Mr. Levern McElveen
Safety Team Leader
FTA Office of Safety & Security, TPM-30
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
(202) 366-1651

About the Newsletter

The FTA Rail Rail Transit Safety Newsletter is a technical assistance newsletter published quarterly by the Federal Transit Administration. This Newsletter is distributed free to members of the State Safety Oversight Community, including FTA regional offices, state safety oversight agencies, and rail transit agencies