Rail Bridge Inspection Reports Come Under Scrutiny

Wisconsin Officials Say Reports Provided Under New Law Don't Go Far Enough

Photo courtesy of Alan Stankevitz

Thanks to a law that took effect earlier this year, a number of Wisconsin officials have been requesting and receiving bridge inspection reports from railroads. However, those officials say that the documents they’re receiving are coming up short with specifics.

The Federal Railroad Administration has received 42 requests for rail bridge inspection reports nationwide through a new website, created after Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act late last year. It says that so far, rail companies are meeting reporting guidelines under the law.

Pete Thompson was among the public officials who used the site to request a bridge inspection: The assistant highway commissioner for Dodge County asked for a report on a bridge in Iron Ridge as part of an upcoming road project.

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However, Thompson isn’t entirely satisfied by the report he’s received.

“It doesn’t help in any way of what we wanted to know,” he said. “How long the bridge will last, is there any plans, upgrades or repairs due to the condition of the facade?”

Thompson said they’re concerned for the safety of pedestrians who walk underneath the bridge because they’ve received reports of water pouring out of its side walls.

Wisconsin and Southern Railroad owns the rail bridge. David Bierman, the railroad’s bridge structure supervisor, said the bridge is inspected every year and in very good condition.

“It’s our responsibility to restrict the bridge immediately if there’s a problem,” said Bierman.

He said there are currently no restrictions on the bridge’s capacity, which handles trains carrying lumber and sand. He added that looks aren’t an indicator of a bridge’s structural integrity.

Elsewhere in the state, Alan Stankevitz has sent a letter to Minnesota and Wisconsin lawmakers about the La Crescent swing bridge, also known as the La Crosse railroad bridge. Stankevitz, a La Crescent resident and member of the La Crosse Chapter of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, said an inspection report he obtained about the bridge doesn’t provide sufficient details on its safety or structural integrity.

“It doesn’t explain…what type of inspection was done, how thorough the inspection was done, what things were found that need to be monitored.”

Canadian Pacific owns the rail bridge. Andy Cummings, CP spokesman, said the inspection reports they provide to FRA meet the requirements laid out under the FAST Act.

“That said, we will go further,” said Cummings. “We are willing to meet with public staff from cities and counties that typically pose these questions.”

Cummings said the Mississippi drawbridge is safe for the 25 trains that carry a variety of commodities daily. He added the rail bridge is inspected each year.

However, Stankevitz fears the 115-year-old bridge is unsafe to carry dangerous commodities like crude oil and argued other agencies have recommended replacing the 115 year-old bridge.

Eric Washburn, bridge administrator with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Bridge Administration Program, identified CP’s swing bridge as one of nine in the country they consider a marine hazard under the Truman-Hobbs Act. Washburn said that bridge and others are an “unreasonable obstruction to navigation.”

Minnesota’s 2010 rail plan also slated the La Crescent swing bridge for upgrades. However, the plan noted that most of the bridges identified for improvements only become critical to replace as passenger service is added to freight lines.

In an email, Cummings said CP would work with the U.S. Coast Guard if federal funding became available to design and install a new rail bridge.

“Our focus is on maintaining the bridge for safe rail use, and as long as our annual inspections indicate that it meets that requirement, we will not budget money for a replacement,” Cummings wrote.

Canadian Pacific has invested $364 million to improve bridge infrastructure since 2010. A spokesman with the Association of American Railroads said rail companies are aggressively monitoring the safety of bridges and complying with strict federal regulations.