Don’t judge a bridge by its color

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

The Federal Railroad Administration on Feb. 26, 2016 launched a new tool on its website that allows states and municipalities to request inspection reports for railroad bridges in their communities. FRA’s announcement of the website came with allegations leveled at the railroads that the industry says are essentially bogus.

The tool is being launched following the passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and “is one of the first provisions FRA has implemented,” FRA said. It is in response to what the FRA claims is indifference and disrespect for public safety on the part of railroads about publicly communicating bridge conditions to politicians and the public.

The Association of American Railroads has a different take.

FRA claims that railroads have been unresponsive with regard to publicly sharing information about bridge conditions, going as far as saying they are “ignoring” and “putting off” members of Congress or the public making inquiries. Said Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg: “The FRA has repeatedly urged railroads to be more responsive and more transparent with state and local leaders concerned about the condition of their local railroad bridges. State and local Congressional officials will now be able to get more information from railroads on the infrastructure in their communities. Providing inspection reports to local leaders is a great first step, but more can—and must—be done. The FAST Act addressed the issue after months of [me] repeatedly urging railroads to be more transparent and respond to communities when they have questions and concerns about the condition of rail bridges. Last September, [I] sent a letter to all railroads saying, ‘When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response. I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.’ While addressing the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee in November 2015, [I] again told railroads, when FRA is asked about bridge safety, it’s frequently because, again, the public or a member of Congress become concerned and has tried to get answers from a railroad, and they have been ignored or put off.”

AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg responded to FRA’s allegations: “Freight railroads are complying with the FAST Act measure passed by Congress, which provides a workable framework for freight railroads to provide pertinent inspection information that is requested,” he told Railway Age. “Freight railroads also have been taking additional steps to enhance bridge information sharing, including having information readily available on their websites. Bridge inspections are comprehensive reports based on meticulous examinations conducted by qualified rail bridge experts, who follow strict engineering standards to assess the bridge’s structural integrity. Under the FAST Act measure, pertinent areas from bridge inspections have been identified so that railroads are able to provide this key information in order to respond to a request.

“Regarding rail bridge safety in general, the freight rail industry shares the FRA’s commitment to safety, and freight railroads are steadfast compliant with federal regulations when it comes to the nation’s rail bridges, which are built, maintained and inspected to handle today’s freight traffic. Freight railroads follow an aggressive 24/7 safety first inspection and monitoring process. Qualified railroad bridge inspectors are meticulous in assessing a bridge’s structural integrity and have deep expertise in assessing the safety of the many types of bridges in use today, including those made of timber, steel, concrete, stone and brick. These bridge experts know the safety of a bridge has nothing to do with how good it looks on the outside and thoroughly scrutinize the structure to make sure it is safe, with no relationship to whether it is aesthetically pleasing. Some bridges are painted, others are not, while some are more weathered than others. Outward appearance does not indicate a bridge’s safety.”

A state or a political subdivision of a state, such as a city, county, town or municipality, can now use FRA’s website to request information from inspection reports for local bridges via Once FRA receives the request, the railroad that owns the bridge will have 30 days to respond to the request. FRA plans to provide a copy of the report to the requester within 45 days of the original request. According to the FAST Act, the following information about the bridge will be included in the report: the date of the last inspection; length of bridge; location of bridge; type of bridge (superstructure); type of structure (substructure); features crossed by the bridge; railroad contact information; and a general statement on the condition of the bridge.

FRA has requested additional resources as part of the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget to double its bridge specialist staff and create a national bridge inventory database and website. “We hope Congress will provide the resources to double our bridge safety staff and create a national database,” said Feinberg.

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