2021 Transit Safety & Security Report

Dec. 21, 2021
The transit industry continues to post impressive safety statistics, but new methods and processes are being implemented and evaluated in an effort toward constant improvement.

Public transportation continues to post statistics that support its reputation as being one of the safest modes of travel in North America. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) referenced its 2016 report, The Hidden Traffic Safety Report: Public Transportation, in its most recent Fact Book when the association highlighted “cities with more than 40 annual public transit trips per person have half the traffic fatality rate of those with fewer than 20 trips per person.”

The usual round of statistics that are viewed and compiled for this annual report should be absorbed with the knowledge that the impact of COVID-19 on ridership can be seen as a contributing factor in many of the results. Improved fatality rates can be viewed as the consequence of less riders, while increased crime statistics can be seen as the result of less eyes in a system or situational escalation, such as enforcement of mask mandates.

While transit stakeholders have firm commitments to maintaining safety on every system in North America, the pandemic has caused the public to take a closer look at everyday activities – from dining out to daily travels – through the lens of safety.

And transit agencies have a plan. In August, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) said more than 700 U.S. transit systems were in compliance with the Public Transportation Agency Safety Plan (PTASP) Final Rule, which was published in 2018. The rule requires all agencies that receive FTA’s Urbanized Area Formula Grants to set safety performance targets in a Safety Plan that is reviewed and certified every year. The plans must include Safety Management System principles and practices, which allow management and labor to come together, address risk, analyze data and provide a safer ride for passengers, while protecting workers and operators.

On the security front, transit systems are embracing smarter ways to keep track of incidents on their systems through enhanced technology. With the continued move toward more connected and integrated systems, the need to protect all transit networks from potential cyberattacks will increase in importance.

COVID-19’s Continued Impact

COVID-19 has caused a shift in the way transit agencies operate and communicate with riders and employees. Part of a recent APTA report, On the Horizon Planning for Post-Pandemic Travel, included case studies of six transit agencies and their pandemic response. One of the theme’s the report noted was the agencies’ ability to secure employee and rider safety. While the U.S. government has extended the requirement for riders and employees to wear masks while on public transit through March 2022, agencies continue to explore ways to boost rider confidence.

Air filtration systems have emerged as one component where transit agencies can improve safety of both operators and riders. In 2021, Metra announced plans to upgrade the ventilation system on its railcars with a new three-stage filtration and purification process and Bay Area Rapid Transit began installation of denser filters throughout its fleet of train cars. More recently, IndyGo said it will work with Lumin-Air to install air filtration systems in all IndyGo fixed route, bus rapid transit and paratransit buses.

Agencies are also exploring new ways to protect people who work and use transit. This fall, the Metrolinx Incident Command team in the Greater Toronto Area conducted a pilot study of environmental sampling, looking for the virus that causes COVID-19 in air and on surfaces. The team collected 36 samples from a busy rail station, bus terminal and inside vehicles. The team did not detect the genetic material from the virus in any of the samples.

Also in Canada, TransLink in Metro Vancouver and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) installed antimicrobial copper coatings on high-touch transit surfaces on vehicles following a successful pilot phase that supports copper’s ability to kill up to 99.9 percent of bacteria on transit surfaces.

Rail Safety

Another area of focus in 2021 was enhancing safety of rail components and rail transit workers.

FTA’s Rail Safety Data Report 2007-2018 (RSDR), which was released September 2021, shows the fatality rate on rail transit systems increased .7 percent per year on average, while the injury rate increased 1.5 percent per year on average. The RSDR found two percent of fatalities on rail transit systems were assigned a workforce or infrastructure probable cause. Most rail transit fatalities are due to suicide or trespassing, customer actions or public actions.

FTA recently closed a request for information (RFI) this fall seeking input on potential transit worker safety mitigations, including potential minimum safety requirements for Roadway Worker Protection (RWP) programs and transit worker assault prevention. FTA Acting Associate Administrator for Transit Safety and Oversight and Chief Safety Officer Gail Lyssy told Mass Transit RWP was identified by both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FTA’s Transit Advisory Committee for Safety as an area of interest with both recommending FTA action. Lyssy said the RFI will assist FTA as it evaluates potential actions to mitigate risks to transit workers.

In related rail safety news, the Federal Railroad Administration renewed the charter of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) for a two-year period. RSAC includes industry representatives from stakeholder groups, including freight and passenger rail, transit, contracting, labor, supplier and manufacturing entities. RSAC was first formed in 1996 as a forum in which federal officials and the rail industry could collaborate through the rulemaking process and program development.

One of the more pressing issues that developed late in 2021 has been the recommendation by the NTSB for rail transit agencies and commuter railroads to assess gauge specifications of their fleets and urge immediate corrective action should any wheelsets be found to be outside these specifications. The safety alert follows an Oct. 12, 2021, derailment involving a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority MetroRail Blue line train in Arlington, Va. NTSB’s preliminary report determined the incident occurred when a wheelset on the fourth car of the train derailed. The same wheelset derailed and then rerailed while moving through a pair of switches two times the day of the incident before derailing a final time.

NTSB says the Safety Alert identifies wheelset movement as a problem that carries “the potential to create a catastrophic event.”

FTA also issued a safety directive where State Safety Oversight Agencies had until Dec. 1, 2021, to report out-of-tolerance wheel gauges on all rail transit rolling stock in revenue service and conduct inspections of wheel gauges at rail fixed guideway public transportation systems in their jurisdiction.


Transit agencies are working to make their systems more secure through various avenues. Bi-State Development, which operates St. Louis Metro Transit, has developed a series of partnerships to aid its efforts. Taulby Roach, president and CEO of Bi-State Development, goes into detail of why these efforts worked in this supplemental column.

Partnerships will also be at the core of Regional Transportation District (RTD) of Denver’s recent effort to enhance security at and around the Denver Union Station area. RTD is supplementing its transit police operations through partnerships with the federal Transportation Security Administration's Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams and the Guardian Angels nonprofit organization.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) recently extended its agreement for system patrol services with the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the Long Beach Police Department. L.A. Metro will also utilize alternative public safety efforts, such as dispatching police officers or homeless and mental health outreach workers, depending on the situation.

Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro) Board of Directors approved a more hands-on approach to transit safety with the approval of a resolution to establish a dedicated transit police force at the agency. CapMetro currently contracts with more than 100 off-duty Austin Police Department officers to provide security on its system. Gardner Tabon, CapMetro executive vice president and chief safety officer, explained the city’s police force are obligated to deploy where the city needs them, which may not be where the transit agency needs lie. Tabon also explained the authority’s three-pronged approach to public safety, which includes public safety ambassadors, intervention specialists and transit police. The CapMetro Board’s approval allows the authority to proceed with the plans, which it estimates could take up to 18 months to implement a transit police unit.

Moving away from protecting physical assets and toward protecting operational and business systems, cybersecurity will continue to develop in scope and focus for transit agencies. This year saw large and medium-sized transit agencies, including TTC and the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, hit with cyberattacks and moves by the private sector to bolster cybersecurity offerings to customers. Developing improved cybersecurity for rail transport systems are the focus of an agreement between Airbus and Alstom, as well as an agreement between Siemens Mobility and UK-based RazorSecure.

In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security turned its focus on rail and transit systems in its latest cybersecurity sprint. The Transportation Security Administration issued Safety Directives that will require higher risk freight rail, passenger rail and rail transit operators to designate a cybersecurity coordinator; report cybersecurity incidents within 24 hours; develop and implement a cybersecurity incident response plan to reduce the risk of an operational disruption; and complete a cybersecurity vulnerability assessment to identify potential gaps or vulnerabilities in their systems. While the requirements included in the Security Directives apply to a select group of rail owners/operators, TSA also issued an Information Circular encouraging all owners/operators to implement the actions laid out in the Security Directives.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Editor in Chief

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the magazine’s editorial direction and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.