SUNDAY EDITION | Aging rail bridges brace for rise in train traffic
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The video footage shows the truck barreling north on 3rd Street towards the University of Louisville's Belknap campus. But as it passes under a railroad bridge, the white tractor-trailer comes to an abrupt stop, its top nearly sheared off.
Security cameras at nearby Bluegrass Awning Co. have documented such crashes for years. Bruce Dodge, the company's owner and president, said collisions often shake his entire building, some 120 feet away, accompanied by a loud “boom.”
On average, Dodge said, two crashes per month occur at the viaduct owned by railroad titan CSX Corp. and built in 1930. He said he long has been concerned about the condition of the bridge, which also carries trains over a sidewalk U of L students use to reach campus.
“These pillars here -- even though they've got re-bar in them, they're cracking, they're falling away,” Dodge said. “It's 80 years old. It's just a question of time.”
State inspection reports show concrete columns that are cracked and “deteriorated,” and girders with “impact damage from high loads.” During the last three reviews, inspectors have rated the viaduct's support elements in “fair” condition – one step above “poor.”
A CSX spokeswoman did not answer a question about the bridge's safety.
The bridge is one of 16 in Louisville bracing for more train traffic as part of a $90 million upgrade by CSX that will strengthen tracks south of Indianapolis, allowing faster and heavier trains to move between the two cities.
The deal, finalized earlier this month between CSX and the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co., also will rearrange train traffic in Louisville as new north- and southbound routes open up after 2020.
Train volumes will triple on several lines, including tracks that run near U of L and through the Limerick, Old Louisville, California, Russell and Portland neighborhoods, according to projections filed with federal regulators.
INTERACTIVE MAP OF LOUISVILLE'S RAIL BRIDGES
But there is little publicly available information about the condition of bridges on those rail lines, including those that pass over public streets and sidewalks.
It's the railroads – not Louisville Metro or the state highway department – that own the rail bridges and are responsible for maintaining them.
The Federal Railroad Administration requires railroads to inspect their spans at least once a year, but the companies don't have to publicly release the reports.
CSX does not share its inspection data, a spokeswoman said in an email. The railroad administration has not yet fulfilled a WDRB News request under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act for audits of recent bridge inspections in Louisville.
But every two years, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet reviews railroad and other privately-owned bridges over public roads. Inspectors look at two of the spans' three main elements – the load-bearing substructure and the superstructure, which connects with the rail-carrying deck.
The state inspection reports, obtained under Kentucky's open records law, show rail bridges in Louisville are largely in “fair” and “satisfactory” condition. Only about 18 percent of bridges that carry trains over roads have parts rated “good” or better.
Four of the city's 55 bridges have elements in “poor” condition.
Moreover, Kentucky transportation officials are supposed to share the state's inspections of rail bridges with the railroads.
But when WDRB filed a records request regarding the four Jefferson County bridges in the worst shape, the state said it had no evidence the inspections were actually shared with the railroads. In an interview, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe acknowledged the possibility that the reports, dating back to 2010, weren't sent.
That includes a report for a CSX overpass that crosses Breckinridge Street. The bridge, which is expected to see a decrease in traffic in the coming years, is visibly damaged, with large chunks of concrete missing from the bridge's eastern side.
Since 2010, three different inspectors graded the span's superstructure in “poor” condition and noted that “[v]vertical cracks have developed on the east beams above the area impacted by traffic – these beams need attention.”
After receiving questions from WDRB News about correspondence between the Transportation Cabinet and the railroads, Wolfe said state officials in Louisville have been directed to re-send the inspection reports. The cabinet also has ordered reports from Louisville-area bridges not due for inspections within three months to be mailed to the tracks' owners.
“I think it's fair to say that, yeah, it's a concern if there's ever a breakdown in an established procedure,” he said.
Wolfe, however, noted that the Transportation Cabinet's role is mainly to ensure that vehicles can pass safely under public roads.
“The cabinet can advise,” he said, “but the responsibility lies with the railroad if there is a problem with a railroad bridge.”
Annual inspections required
After years of input, the Federal Railroad Administration enacted a rule in 2010 requiring track owners to inspect their bridges each year.
The rule mainly helped smaller railroads, said Gordon Davids, the administration's former chief engineer for structures. Larger rail companies “have probably the most comprehensive railroad bridge inspection programs of anybody in the country,” he said.
From 1982 to 2008, about two railroad bridges per year suffered structural failures, according to federal data. Davids said most bridge failures have occurred after spans were struck or as the result of some other factor.
“They were not caused by the degradation of the bridge under traffic that has gone undetected for years and years and years,” he said.
Besides the federal requirements, railroads have a basic financial incentive to maintain their bridges, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
That incentive: A bridge that has to be shut down means longer routes for shipping goods.
“That means they don't get any revenue, and that's a huge problem for them,” Hallenbeck said.
Jerry Rose, a University of Kentucky professor of civil engineering, agreed that railroads have a monetary interest in making sure their bridges are operable.
“You're not in the business of building bridges, you're not in the business to maintain them or anything. You're in the business of running trains,” Rose said. “This is a necessary evil – having to spend money on infrastructure.”
Rose said railroads spend a “tremendous amount” of time ensuring rail bridges are safe and able to carry heavy loads. While some bridges are showing their age, he cautioned against presuming a span is unsafe because it is rusting, for example.
At the same time, Rose said the four Louisville bridges that state inspectors have rated in “poor” condition ought to get attention.
“Hopefully the railroads would have those four under advisement for the next round of improvements to bridges,” Rose said.
The four spans include the CSX overpass at E. Breckinridge Street just west of Swan Street; a Norfolk Southern Corp. viaduct over Bank Street east of 31st Street; and two Paducah & Louisville Railway bridges: one across Oak Street near 15th Street, and one over a road north of 27th Street near the city's riverwalk.
The Breckinridge Street bridge was inspected last December and deemed safe for its current railroad traffic, CSX spokeswoman Kaitlyn Barrett said in an email. There was damage to the bridge walls “due to repeatedly being hit by vehicles, but the inspector found nothing that would interfere with safe train operations,” she said.
CSX spends more than $1 billion a year to maintain its tracks and bridges, but no "additional plans" for the Breckinridge Street bridge are scheduled, she said.
Meanwhile, the Norfolk Southern bridge over Bank Street is one of the three oldest railroad spans in Louisville that passes over a road. Built in 1913, the viaduct has missing chunks of concrete and exposed re-bar. Water seeped down a wall underneath the span on a recent morning.
An inspector from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet made similar observations when the bridge was last reviewed in February 2014. The inspector witnessed, as he had before, rusted steel caps, peeling paint and sections of some columns “thinned to a knife's edge.”
Portland architect Gary Watrous said he's long been concerned about the Bank Street bridge and others like it in his neighborhood.
“From an image perspective, these bridges cast a poor light,” said Watrous, a member of the Portland Now revitalization group. “Structurally, I think they also look deteriorated in so far as all the surfaces are just falling apart and look ugly.”
Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon acknowledged that some people might question the safety of a bridge – “particularly one that has some age on it” – but said the Bank Street span has been inspected and rated fit for trains.
“We certainly don't have any plans to replace it over the next year or make any kinds of upgrades over the next year,” he said. “But as far as we are concerned, it is safe for rail traffic as it is right now.”
Pidgeon declined to comment on the state inspection reports, saying the railroad conducts its own reviews. The company doesn't make those reports publicly available, he said.
Paducah & Louisville officials plan to make repairs to the Oak Street bridge's piers in 2016, said Shane DeJarnatt, the railroad's director of structures.
“We inspect our bridges yearly and that one gets inspected quite a bit more because it gets hit by trucks all the time, but I don't have concerns that we have a ‘poor' bridge,” he said.
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