Feds: Railroads should disclose more info on bridges - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Feds: Railroads should disclose more info on bridges

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The head of the Federal Railroad Administration is urging railroads to be more forthcoming about the health of bridges that carry trains.

Sarah Feinberg, the agency’s acting administrator, sent a letter to railroad companies last week noting that in recent months “the public and Congress have registered concerns about what is being done to maintain and keep privately owned railroad bridges safe.”

The directive is meant to bring more transparency to the fitness of aging rail lines and bridges that, in some communities, are handling trains laden with Bakken crude oil. Several derailments of trains carrying the flammable oil have led U.S. regulators to press for tougher safety standards.

“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,” Feinberg wrote in a copy of the letter provided by the railroad administration. “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.”

Unlike highway bridges, railroad spans are owned and inspected by rail companies. In Kentucky, the state Transportation Cabinet inspects railroad and other privately-owned bridges over public roads every two years.

WDRB News, citing documents obtained under Kentucky’s open records law, reported in June that about 18 percent of such rail bridges in Louisville had elements rated “good” or better during their most recent inspections.

In all, four of Louisville’s 55 rail bridges had elements in “poor” condition.

But the state’s inspections are limited. They include the load-bearing substructure and the superstructure but not the deck, which holds the rail itself.

And while U.S. regulators require annual inspections, the railroads don’t have to publicly release their findings. The agency hasn’t yet provided audits of recent bridge reviews in Louisville under a Freedom of Information Act request on June 4.

Among the lowest-rated Louisville bridges is a CSX overpass at E. Breckinridge Street just west of Swan Street. It has chunks of concrete missing on its eastern façade and, since 2010, three inspectors have documented vertical cracks on beams that “need attention.”

A spokeswoman for the railroad company said in June that the bridge was inspected last December and is safe for traffic.

CSX has declined to share its inspection data on the bridge. Officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Norfolk Southern’s Louisville bridges include a Bank Street span that has sections of columns “thinned to a knife’s edge,” according to its most recent inspection report from February 2014. The railroad has maintained the bridge is safe.

Norfolk Southern declined to comment directly about the Feinberg letter, but spokesman Dave Pidgeon said in a statement that his company has “plenty of business incentive” to maintain more than 9,600 bridges across its network.

“We also inspect bridges and to the best of our ability make reports available to federal regulators upon request in compliance with federal law,” he said.

Trains carrying Bakken crude oil don’t typically pass through Louisville, but the region is expected to see an increase in rail volumes in the coming years as the result of track upgrades between Louisville and Indianapolis. CSX Corp. plans to spend up to $90 million by 2022 to improve the line owned by Jeffersonville, Ind.-based Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co.

The deal would shuffle existing rail traffic in Louisville, adding more trains on 16 railroad bridges in the city.

Once the work is complete, trains would be able to carry more weight and travel 60 miles per hour, up from the existing 25-mile-per-hour speed limit north of Louisville.

RELATED: Interactive map of Louisville-area rail bridges

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