The scene after a bus crash at Shelmire Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard in July 2023. (6ABC)

The recent string of crashes involving SEPTA vehicles has prompted the Federal Transit Administration to launch a comprehensive safety inspection for just the third time in the agency’s history.

“Direct action is needed to reorient the SEPTA management and workforce toward making safety a higher priority, improving PennDOT’s oversight of safety, and calling on both of them to take timely corrective actions,” a spokesperson for the federal agency told Billy Penn.

Back in March, the FTA had asked the Pa. Dept. of Transportation (PennDOT) to tighten oversight of the Philly regional transit authority’s rail operations due to an “increase in safety incidents,” including three train collisions, a derailment, and a runaway train over the previous few months. 

Then July brought a whole new spate of incidents, including a fatal bus crash. 

FTA officials decided they needed to directly review SEPTA’s rail and bus operations themselves.

“The Federal Transit Administration is extremely concerned with the ongoing safety issues at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority,” wrote Joseph DeLorenzo, the FTA’s associate administrator for transit safety, in an August letter sent to PennDOT and SEPTA, first reported by The Inquirer. “The safety of SEPTA’s passengers and workforce is of paramount concern to FTA.”

Under federal law, the FTA is authorized to conduct direct inspections, investigations and audits of any public transportation agency, he noted. But this kind of formal review — called a safety management inspection, or SMI — has only happened twice before: in Boston in 2022, and Washington D.C. in 2015.

FTA is not planning to manage SEPTA’s daily operations, and it’s not taking over the state’s oversight responsibilities, as it did in Washington, a spokesperson confirmed.

However, it asked PennDOT to provide a detailed summary of what it’s doing to mitigate the accident trends and how it will measure successful outcomes, including information on its in-person inspections at SEPTA. 

The March letter also laid out documents PennDOT had to submit to FTA, including what it calls an “enforcement escalation plan” to ensure SEPTA conducts internal safety reviews, and procedures to make sure SEPTA inspects all its railway track and rail facilities at least once every three months.

SEPTA is already taking some steps to remediate the issues.

This week it began putting 9,000 employees through safety training refresher courses, starting with 2,500 bus and trolley operators. Because that will pull about 250 operators off the job daily, the process is expected to cause some delays.

A crash-filled summer

What caused the FTA to take this unusual action? Here’s a recap.
  • On July 21, a SEPTA bus rear-ended another on Roosevelt Boulevard at Shelmire Avenue, injuring at least 19 people and resulting in the death of 72-year-old Siu Nam Mak.
  • On July 23, a bus reportedly hit an electrical pole in Fishtown at Frankford and West Girard avenues, injuring four people. 
  • On July 24, one trolley rear-ended another just outside of Philly in Upper Darby, near Lansdowne Avenue and Garrett Road. Five passengers were hospitalized with injuries.
  • On July 25, a bus jumped the curb at 15th and Walnut streets and crashing into a building. The driver, the only person aboard, was hurt.
  • On July 27, an out-of-service trolley at the Elmwood Depot went out of control, hit several vehicles, and crashed into the Blue Bell Inn on Cobbs Creek, badly damaging the historic building. A mechanic who was on board and two people in an SUV were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

An Aug. 6 incident wasn’t under SEPTA management’s control, but added to the general dismay: A SEPTA employee who was off the clock allegedly ran a red light and crashed her personal car into a trolley in on South 52nd Street in Southwest Philadelphia, knocking it off the tracks. She was later charged with driving under the influence and other counts.

Has PennDOT been doing enough?

DeLorenzo, the FTA associate safety administrator, wrote a letter March 7 expressing concern about the incidents in December and February: a trolley collision with a bus in at 58th and Baltimore, two trolleys colliding at Elmwood Yard, a derailment on South Street, a runaway train at Bridge Street Yard, and a collision between trains at the Fern Rock Carhouse.

The federal agency also found fatality rates between September 2018 and August 2022 were above the national average for SEPTA’s buses, trolleys, streetcars and “heavy rail” trains. 

FTA officials started communicating almost daily with PennDOT safety officials, who oversee SEPTA trains and trolleys. The information it received indicated “a troubling lack of safety policies and procedures and/or a lack of adherence” by SEPTA, DeLorenzo wrote.

Among other issues, FTA couldn’t tell if PennDOT was doing in-person inspections of SEPTA or had detailed plans to address safety issues, and said more than a third of PennDOT’s corrective action plans for SEPTA were open and overdue. “FTA is concerned that PennDOT has not utilized its enforcement authority to ensure SEPTA eliminates collisions, avoids derailments, and prevents runaway trains,” DeLorenzo wrote. 

Pa. Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll responded with a letter detailing how PennDOT staff “engage in near-daily oversight of SEPTA’s rail transit,” averaging 17 operation reviews, 10 rail movement inspections, and 7 station inspections per month, along with many other audits, workshops, and meetings. 

The state agency also submitted an action plan to the FTA, PennDOT spokesperson Alexis Campbell told Billy Penn, and later followed up with the requested “enforcement escalation plan” and other measures.

Then came the crashes this summer, and DeLorenzo’s new letter stating the FTA would directly intervene.

Yet most of the accidents that led to FTA’s unusual safety inspection did not involve trains or trolleys, which PennDOT oversees, but buses — which the FTA itself oversees, per Campbell.

“PennDOT remains committed to safety and will work closely with both FTA and SEPTA to ensure it,” Campbell said.

What led the FTA to intervene with Boston and Washington?

The FTA gained new authority to oversee transit safety under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) legislation that President Obama signed in July 2012.

The agency first used the safety-inspection process in 2015, after smoke filled a Washington Metro train stuck in a tunnel. One person died and 84 people were hospitalized. There had also been other service breakdowns that shut down stations or required passengers to be rescued from stalled trains.

Investigators found numerous problems in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s train system, including safety training lapses, organizational issues, equipment deficiencies, understaffing, poor work scheduling practices, a lack of smoke detectors, and many others. 

Uniquely, the FTA concluded that the area’s Tri-State Oversight Committee was ineffective and took direct control of safety oversight of the Metro for 3.5 years. It then handed responsibility over to the newly formed Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.

Safety in the Metro has improved in some ways since 2015, due in part to an increase in capital funding. Broken platforms were repaired and track fires reportedly fell by more than 60%. But the system remains in crisis by many accounts, with derailments, uncertified drivers, a report that personnel “recklessly disregard worker safety,” and a ridership collapse that has led to a budget deficit.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority came under FTA scrutiny in April 2022 after a man’s arm was caught in a malfunctioning train door and he was dragged to his death. There had also recently been a subway collision, a derailment, and a runaway train at a railyard, among other incidents, and the following summer there was a train fire on a river bridge.

The FTA ordered a series of emergency safety measures and conducted an SMI. Last August it issued a scathing report that concluded the MBTA had prioritized new construction over maintaining the safety and reliability of existing rail service, and had problems with staff morale, labor shortages, goal prioritization, and many other areas. 

The report laid out more than 50 required steps for the MBTA and Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which oversees the transit agency. DeLorenzo rejected the MBTA’s initial employee safety plan, saying it would take too long to implement. State legislators last month also proposed creating a new transit safety agency to take over those duties from the DPU. 

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...