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Corporate Greed and Regulatory Failure Have Again Put The Public At Risk

What you are being fed by government officials in charge of bridge safety is intended to leave you with a strong sense of security, but it's a false sense. It is intended to have you believe that the issue of bridge collapse is under control, with proper priority and oversight now in place. It follows the mantra “At all costs, don’t alarm the public.”

Read on and be alarmed. Be very alarmed. 

We have all been reading articles about Allegheny County’s poorly-rated and deteriorating bridges - but nothing about why poorly-rated privately-owned rail bridges crossing over our highways and rivers need to be given inspection priority by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). 

This Isn’t Rocket Science. 

Poorly rated rail bridges are most likely to collapse because they have gone the longest without being painted or maintained, carry the heaviest loads (coal car trains) of any type of bridge, and their failure resulting in the derailment of an oil train would cause the largest catastrophe in terms of risk of death and damage. What should give under-rated rail bridges priority over vehicular bridges is that if the poor condition of the rails atop the bridge crack, that will cause an exploding derailment and bring down both the bridge and the train. Rail bridges are the most vulnerable point in the entire rail line. 

Keep in mind that the Wall Street Journal determined that each train car of volatile crude carries the equivalent explosive force of two million sticks of dynamite. Currently, forty percent of all the oil for East coast refineries comes by rail through Pittsburgh. Many hundreds of thousands live in the blast zone, and Pittsburgh’s most critical infrastructure and drinking water supplies are under severe threat — especially where volatile oil trains cross over highways and waterways on railroad bridges.  Once the Shell Cracker Plant opens, the vast rail yard that is attached will be filled with trains carrying highly explosive ethane and butane gasses under pressure over rail bridges through Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. 

Ever Wonder What was Being Hidden From You?  Weak Federal Oversight of Rail Bridges:

A review of federal rail bridge safety standards shows that dangerously inadequate inspections and oversight, and lax regulations under federal law compound the already high risks posed by trains carrying oil and other hazardous materials.

Consider first that there is no national inventory of rail bridges, no mandated submission of inspection records, and no required minimum engineering standard for rail bridges.

A review of federal statutes and guidelines reveals that the federal government has ceded authority for bridge inspection and oversight to the railroads that own the approximately 100,000 rail bridges around the nation. Railroad companies are allowed to self-regulate and left to determine safe load limits, rail track wear standards, inspection and maintenance schedules, and engineering standards with little or no independent oversight.  In addition, federal guidelines provide no minimum design standards for bridge construction or maintenance.

Another Case Of Regulatory Failure, Loopholes and Leeway:

In implementing the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the Department of Transportation and the FRA released the 2010 Bridge Safety Standards, which required the development of Bridge Management Programs along with a set of guidelines interpreting these federal rules. 76 C.F.R. 41306. 

Within both the regulations and guidelines are a host of gaps and loopholes that weaken the safety intent of the original 2008 law.  Among the many weaknesses of these regulations, the following are perhaps the most egregious:
  • In bridge inventories, railroads are not required to note what the bridge crosses over – whether it’s a road, river, drinking water reservoir, or ravine.  49 C.F.R. § 237.33;
  • There are no specific minimum standards for inspection methods, considerations, or procedures.  id;
  • Rail bridge owners are free to determine whether an engineer, inspector, or bridge supervisor is “competent” – there are no national metrics or federal standards, nor is there any way the FRA can intercede in the event it disagrees with a railroad’s choice.  49 C.F.R. § 237.51;
  • Railroads are allowed to make initial load capacity determinations based on nothing more than a bridge’s schematics, subject only to the requirement that the bridge seems to be in the same shape as when it was originally built.  49 C.F.R. § 237.71;
  • Where bridges have unknown safe loading capacities, the railroads determine those limits, yet those bridges can still be used in the interim.  id;
  • While the FRA notes that “the evaluation of a bridge requires the application of engineering principles by a competent person”, the regulations do not actually require that a certified “Railroad Bridge Engineer” or “Rail Bridge Inspector” be on site or even be present for inspections.  49 C.F.R. Subpart E, and § 237.103, 107;
  • Because the FRA and DOT are staffed largely by former rail and petrochemical executives and lobbyists, the regulations developed by the FRA put a limit on what evidence the FRA can use in enforcement cases: an auditor cannot use records of previous findings of fault more than two years old, even if the railroad has a long history of “serious oversights” and those records are on file.  49 C.F.R. § 237.109;
  • While the regulations say that “[b]ridge inspection reports shall be reviewed by railroad bridge supervisors and railroad bridge engineers”, the agency interprets this to mean that those individuals do not have to read every report.  49 C.F.R. § 237.111;
  • The regulations, in the words of the FRA itself, “are silent about the design of a new railroad bridge;” in other words, Bridge Management Programs do not have to have a plan for new bridges.  49 C.F.R. § 237.133; and
  • Most of the audits required by regulation are internal – the FRA does not specify who needs to conduct an audit (or even what their qualifications should be). 49 C.F.R. § 237.151. 

As a whole, these regulations allow too many loopholes, leave too much deference to the railroads, and provide too few guidelines as to what the FRA determines to be “safe”.

Railroads alone are responsible for inspecting, maintaining and repairing their privately-owned bridges, as well as deciding what safety and engineering standards their bridges should meet. The Federal Railroad Administration, on the other hand, plays no role in approving or developing actual safety standards. According to the agency’s own Fact Sheet on its bridge program, it doesn’t even “maintain an inventory of railroad bridges” – instead, in order to even estimate the number of rail bridges in the nation, it must rely upon the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group.

Before the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the DOT was not even specifically involved in the oversight of rail bridge safety at all. The 2008 law did little to improve the situation. Under the 2008 Act, the DOT was directed to “establish a program to periodically review bridge inspection and maintenance data from railroad carrier bridge inspectors.”  In the Bridge Safety Standards regulations issued in 2010, the FRA interpreted this to mean that its role is to audit BMPs and assess them for weaknesses. Such audits include visiting railroad bridges (with the bridge owners’ inspection teams) and reviewing inspection reports on file at railroad company headquarters. 

Between 2011 and 2015, FRA press releases disclosed that officials “observed 4,000 bridges” while conducting 800 “field audits”. Bart Jansen in USA Today:  "Feds urge railroads to share more info about safety of aging bridges". That means that, out of the 100,000 bridges in the US, federal safety officials inspected fewer than five percent of these rail bridges over a four-year period.

According to bridge inspector Kent Madsen - as quoted by Minnesota NPR, “The railroad tells us, if we don’t feel safe, close the road underneath... That’s our only option.” NPR’s examination of public railroad bridge inspection reports further showed that “ many cases, local and state inspectors have complained for years about deteriorating railroad bridges without action from the railroads. In fact, in most cases, inspectors could not examine the decks of railroad bridges because railroads refused inspectors access.”  Dan Gunderson, NPR News:  "Inspectors Find Dozens of Rail Bridges Need Repair"

In the Northeastern Corridor, the average age of major rail bridges is approximately 110 years old. According to the previous FRA Administrator, these bridges “have remained in service well beyond their expected useful life and today require extensive maintenance and are major sources of corridor delays.” Written Statement of Sarah Feinberg, Acting Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration, before the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, U.S. House of Representatives.

The Known Unknowns: 

If an inspection is even conducted, those reports are kept with the railroad itself. Electronic and physical copies are not provided to the FRA for government oversight, and railroads often refuse to make them available to public inspectors. As a case in point, bridge inspections were denied to the City of Milwaukee for months, and even FRA inspectors were told they could review paper copies in person, but could not take pictures or records. Eventually, it took an FRA order backed by a letter from United States Senator Tammy Baldwin to compel Canadian Pacific to release bridge inspection reports to the city. Brad Hicks, "Investigation Gets Results: Federal Government Orders Canadian Pacific to Turn Over Bridge Inspection Reports" FOX6 Now.

The dramatic rise in oil and other hazardous material trains means that many bridges on certain routes are seeing more longer, heavier trains with higher axle weights. In order to boost profits, train length is going from 1 1/2 miles long to 3 miles long at a time when individual tank car weight has been allowed to increase from 263,000 lbs to 284,000 lbs. High axle weights have a strong negative impact on infrastructure integrity, and are credited with being a leading cause of track breakage. Broken rails are the leading cause of derailments in the U.S. 

Recall that it was a cracked old maintenance plug rail (that was manufactured in 1985, showed wear, and was reinstalled in December, 2017) that was the cause of the 2018 derailment at Station Square - plus serious inspection and operation oversights. The FRA’s Derailment Report is linked here:

In October 2006, an 83-car Norfolk Southern train derailed while crossing to the Beaver River railroad bridge in New Brighton, Pennsylvania.  Twenty-three tank cars filled with flammable ethanol derailed, ignited, and burned for 48 hours.  Some of the unburned ethanol liquid was released into the river and the surrounding soil.  Homes and businesses in New Brighton were evacuated for two days. Damages reached $5.8 million.  The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the derailment was Norfolk Southern‘s “inadequate rail inspection and maintenance program that resulted in a rail fracture from an undetected internal defect.  Contributing to the accident were the Federal Railroad Administration’s inadequate oversight of the internal rail inspection process and its insufficient requirements for internal rail inspection.”  Notwithstanding the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations, nothing appears to have changed in this regard.  Read the accident report here.

A paper by engineers with the University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign supported by BNSF Rail found that understanding the factors related to broken rails is an important topic for U.S. freight railroads and is becoming more so because of the increase in their occurrence in recent years. This increase is due to several factors, but the combination of increased traffic and heavier axle loads are probably the most important. Darwin H. Schafer II & Christopher P.L. Barkan, "A Prediction Model for Broken Rails and an Analysis for their Economic Impact".

Derailments due to track breakage and buckling also show the highest cost per derailment category. A study by BNSF indicates that two recent oil train accidents were caused by tracks buckling due to heat. Andrew Kish, Ph.D., "Fundamentals of Track Lateral Stability".  This is a serious concern given the rise in climate change heat indexes. 

Because of the consequences of an oil train or other hazardous materials rail disaster, aging bridges — or those bridges designed for lower numbers of lower axle-weight trains, that are now seeing substantial increases in oil/hazardous material train traffic should be inspected at a much higher rate of frequency than currently required — with third party inspections preferentially provided by local, state and government inspectors.


Call To Action:

Really the only way to protect your loved ones is to get your city, county, state and federal representatives to help get PRIORITY and special inspection oversight from the PUC and the FRA for poorly-rated privately-owned rail bridges that cross our highways and rivers. 

First and foremost, your elected representatives are in office to protect your safety.  You can find your representatives here.  Let them know what you really think about the issue!

Suggested language for your correspondence:
“The integrity of poorly-rated privately-owned rail and bridge infrastructure through Pittsburgh and Allegheny County is crucial to our safety and well-being.  I am writing to you to request that additional rail bridge safety inspection oversight be performed by both the Pennsylvania Utility Commission and the Federal Rail Administration for the reasons and examples previously cited here.

Before the Pittsburgh Vertical Clearance Project and the Shell Cracker Plant add additional train volume to existing rail bridges, all rail lines should:
•    Share existing inspection and repair information with public safety officials and the public; 
•    Allow rigorous, independent safety inspections of all rail infrastructure that might be carrying oil trains next to higher center of gravity double stacks along the proposed modified zigzag route through the city, and;
•    Repair or replace all deficient infrastructure.
Thank you for helping to make our community safe for all.

The foregoing constitute the sole opinion and beliefs of Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RP3)
Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh
Copyright © 2022 Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RP3), All rights reserved.

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