Schumer: Boost rail bridge oversight

The Journal News | April 9, 2015 | Column by Khurram Saeed

More federal oversight is needed to keep track of tens of thousands of railroad bridges, especially in New York, where there has been a recent surge in trains hauling explosive crude oil, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said Thursday.

Railroad companies are responsible for inspecting their own bridges, which are then reviewed by the Federal Railroad Administration. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on the FRA to hire more specialists to audit the bridge safety reports. (Photo: TJN File)

Schumer said the Federal Railroad Administration has only seven specialists to audit inspection reports by freight and passenger railroads for their 70,000 to 100,000 bridges nationwide — including just one who is responsible for New York and 13 other states.

The 3,000 rail bridges in New York includes more than 120 in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam counties.

Railroads such as CSX and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority conduct their own maintenance and annual inspections, leaving them to self report and make repairs at the risk of impacting their operations, Schumer said.

“Some might say this is like the fox guarding the hen house,” the New York Democrat said in a conference call with reporters.

At current federal staffing levels, he said approximately 1 percent of rail bridges across the country are independently reviewed each year.

By comparison, the state Department of Transportation inspects every public roadway bridge at least once every two years.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, said the freight line’s “extensive” bridge-management system meets or exceeds federal requirements. The FRA requires railroads to maintain an inventory of their bridges, their load capacity and standards for bridge engineers, among other conditions.

“CSX inspects all company-owned bridges at least annually, often more frequently, and our records are available for audit by the Federal Railroad Administration,” Doolittle said in an email. “Safety is CSX’s highest priority, and that extends to the maintenance of our bridges, tracks and signals.”

The issue has taken on new urgency as shipments of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota have increased and travel across nearly 1,000 miles of New York. Up to 30 oil trains pass through Rockland each week on CSX’s River Line, hauling it from Selkirk to refineries to the south.

Schumer questioned whether the bridges those trains used were designed to handle the increased frequency and weight of the shipments.

“Structural flaws and defects in these bridges could always be catastrophic regardless of the type of freight being transported,” Schumer wrote Thursday to Acting FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “However, in New York, we have seen a massive increase in the transportation of volatile crude oil by rail which poses an even greater risk should a bridge collapse or fail.”

Schumer said he wants to provide more funding to the FRA so it can hire more bridge auditors next year. Just $1 million could pay for seven more people, but the senator said he will push for more money.

In the meantime, he called on Feinberg to use her agency’s budget flexibility to immediately add more specialists to audit bridge safety reports.

Twitter: @ksaeed1


By the numbers

There are about 3,000 railroad bridges in New York. Here’s the local breakdown:

Westchester - 71

Rockland - 32

Putnam - 19

Source: Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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Schumer: Boost rail bridge oversight
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.