Roles of the Federal Railroad Administration and Utilities and Transportation Commission in Railroad Safety Oversight. Federal law mandates a national rail safety program that is carried out, in part, through issuance of federal safety requirements and through inspection efforts to monitor compliance with these requirements. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and participating states conduct inspections and investigations of railroads as part of the national rail safety program. Transit operations in an urban area not connected to the general railroad system are excluded from FRA's oversight.
Under state law, for participating in enforcement of federal rail safety regulations in cooperation with FRA, the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) is granted regulatory jurisdiction over the safety practices for railroad equipment, facilities, rolling stock, and operations.
Role of the Washington State Department of Transportation in Rail Transit Safety Oversight. Under federal law, states are required to have a State Safety Oversight (SSO) program for all rail transit systems. "Rail transit systems" are defined as rail transit systems operating on a fixed guideway that is not regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration, and are known as rail fixed guideway public transportation systems or rail fixed guideway systems (RFGSs). In Washington, this includes Sound Transit's light rail in the Puget Sound area, Seattle's streetcars, and the Seattle Monorail.
Washington's SSO program is housed within the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which is the designated Washington SSO agency in state law. WSDOT's responsibilities as SSO include investigations and enforcement; oversight of system safety program plans and system security and emergency preparedness plans; use of compliance mechanisms for enforcement; auditing of system safety program plans and system security and emergency preparedness plans; investigations of reportable incidents, accidents, security breaches, hazards, and security vulnerability; and any associated rule adoption. WSDOT and its employees have limited liability for any actions arising from its role as SSO.
Point Defiance Bypass Derailment. In 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an accident report on the 2017 Point Defiance Bypass derailment that occurred on the first revenue service run along a new Amtrak Cascades route. The derailment resulted in three passenger deaths, 57 passengers and crew members injured, and property damage estimated at more than $25.8 million. The NTSB report included recommendations to, among others, FRA, WSDOT, Amtrak, and Sound Transit, and found there was an absence of clearly defined roles and responsibilities among these agencies during preparation for the start of service on this route.
Study on Rail Safety Governance. The 2020 Transportation budget directed the Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) to oversee a study on rail safety governance best practices. The study assessed rail safety governance for passenger and freight rail, including rail transit services, and considered recommendations made by the NTSB accident report on the bypass derailment relevant to rail safety governance. The report included recommendations related to strengthening UTC's role as the regulator of railroad safety and increasing rail safety coordination in the state.
General Rail Safety Oversight. UTC is authorized to oversee rail safety to the extent permitted by federal law, and is responsible for inspection, surveillance, and investigation of rights-of-way, facilities, equipment, and operations of railroads, and for enforcement of state and federal laws and regulations relating to the transportation of persons or commodities, or both, of any nature or description, by rail. UTC's investigative and inspection authority over rail safety practices is expanded to the extent permitted by federal law. UTC's authority over rail safety applies to RFGSs only as specified below.
Oversight of New Operations and Infrastructure and Safety Management Practices. UTC's oversight of rail safety includes, but is not limited to, oversight of the implementation of new and materially changed railroad operations and infrastructure for rail service through inspection, surveillance, and investigation, as permitted by federal law. It also includes oversight of the safety management practices for passenger rail operations, as permitted by federal law. WSDOT is directed to coordinate with UTC and Amtrak to facilitate this oversight. UTC is also required to facilitate communication and collaboration between freight rail service providers to promote industry safety management practices.
Rail Transit Oversight. In coordination with WSDOT, UTC is required to provide support and technical assistance in the oversight of RFGSs, as permitted by federal law. UTC and its employees have no liability for actions taken to support WSDOT in its oversight of RFGSs to the extent WSDOT is not liable for actions taken in its oversight of RFGSs. UTC and WSDOT must report to the transportation committees of the Legislature and to the Governor's Office by December 1st of each year on the status of WSDOT's RFGS safety oversight program, providing a joint assessment of the activities required under state and federal law. The report must include plans and recommendations for enhancing current activities.
Facilitation of Rail Safety Communication and Annual Rail Safety Report. UTC is required to promote rail safety through facilitating communication and collaboration among stakeholders with an interest in rail, including local jurisdictions, host and tenant railroads, and rail labor organizations. This communication and collaboration must include rail safety of RFGSs. UTC must produce an annual report on rail safety and provide it to the transportation committees of the Legislature, including JTC, and make it available to the public. This report must include information related to the rail safety of RFGSs.
To ensure the act is implemented on its effective date, UTC may, before July 1, 2022:
All rules adopted by UTC prior to July 1, 2022, that relate to implementation of this act, must have an effective date consistent with the act's effective date.
In making these changes, the stated legislative intent is to build on the recommendations of NTSB and of JTC report to strengthen rail safety governance. The Legislature does not intend for expansion of the UTC's role in rail safety to be funded through assessment of fees on rail entities.