Through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, the U.S. Congress required for the first time that FTA establish a program providing for the state-conducted oversight of the safety of rail transit systems not being regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Prior to 1991, the rail transit systems were self-regulated, which means that it was up to the discretion of each RTA to design, build, and operate its systems based on its own parameters for ensuring safety. Between 1991 and 1995, the FTA developed the oversight program with the goal of improving rail transit safety. In 1995, the FTA issued its final safety oversight rule for operations. Through the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the U.S. Congress revised the safety oversight rule to included pre-operational phases in 2005. In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the next funding and authorization bill for surface transportation spending called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) that may impact safety oversight, in which the details are still being developed by the FTA.
Some additional factors helped to contribute and shape safety oversight. As a result of several major rail transit accidents gaining national attention in the 1990s, it was generally perceived that self-regulation of rail system safety was not working as effectively as possible. Various stakeholders including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that safety of the RTAs needed oversight by an independent agency. The FTA delegates the authority to oversee the safety of RTA operations to the states within whose boundaries these transit systems exist. These transit systems consist of a wide variety of operations including light and heavy rapid rail systems, monorail, inclined plane, funicular, trolley, or automated guideway.
Through strict regulation and penalties for non-compliance, the FRA regulates safety on the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) and commuter rail systems throughout the U.S. including the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Metrolink in California, Metra in Illinois, and Tri-Rail in Florida to name a few. In contrast, the Mass Urban Transportation Administration (the predecessor of FTA) did not oversee the safety and operations of rail transit systems like WMATA Metrorail, Los Angeles County Metro, New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, etc. Today however, the FTA Rule 49 CFR Part 659 changed this lack of safety oversight and has expanded further.