When it comes to rail-bridge safety, railroads mostly police themselves
The train derailment at Willow and Shermer Road in Northbrook, Illinois happened on the Fourth of July with temperatures over 100 degrees. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: October 29, 2012 11:56AM
The Illinois Department of Transportation’s website offers a massive database of information on the condition of bridges across the state.
But if you search for the railroad bridge that collapsed Wednesday and killed two people in a train derailment on the Glenview-Northbrook border, you won’t find it.
That’s because the state doesn’t oversee railroad bridges. And if you think you can go to the Federal Railroad Administration to get information on the rail bridges it oversees, think again.
Railroads don’t have to routinely provide the agency with the results of inspections they conduct on their own bridges.
Why not? The Federal Transportation Administration says it would be “counterproductive” to require railroads to do so.
Federal officials said the rationale is that it’s in the best interest of railroads to maintain their bridges well, considering the cost of potential accidents, the cost of replacing a bridge and the loss of service of the track over the bridge.
The companies have a “vested interest in maintaining the proper design, inspection, maintenance and repair of their railroad bridges, as they are essential to the flow of commerce and passengers in the United States,” Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael England said.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari agreed. Freight railroads and Amtrak own and maintain more than 77,000 railroad bridges nationwide.
“I think the rationale has been the railroad companies have a lot to lose if they screw up,” Magliari said. “They have more staff out there for maintenance and inspection and to also combine that with federal inspectors or state inspectors would be duplication.”
Federal law requires railroads to inspect their bridges twice a year. The bridge near Willow and Shermer roads that collapsed Wednesday was reinforced in 2011 and last inspected on April 6, a Union Pacific spokesman said. No defects were found, he said.
The regulations date back to the 1970 Federal Railroad Safety Act, which changed the way railroads operated. For more than a century, the industry self-regulated many of its safety practices. In the 1960s, companies dealt with declining safety standards and were in poor financial condition.
But the 1970 law created regulations for many aspects of railroad safety, and for the first time gave the railroad administration the authority to inspect rail bridges after an accident, as the agency is doing now with last week’s disaster scene on Shermer Road.
Current rail safety rules are a step up from how the industry operated for most of the 20th century. But there are still some rules that could use some review, said Ian Savage, transportation economist and railroad safety expert at Northwestern University.
Savage said the act created very specific rules, like how many rail ties should be on a length of the track, or which union can work on the inspection of freight cars.
But something is missing: “The issue of structures [such as rail bridges] was not of concern in the 1960s and hence there wasn’t any part made into law regarding structures,” Savage said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), who has battled Canadian National over blocked rail crossings in the suburbs, said she’s expecting some answers from Union Pacific about the derailment and collapse.
“Whatever the cause, something went tragically wrong, and I expect that [railroad administration] officials and experts will give this investigation their full attention -- and be prepared to explain their conclusions to Congress,” Biggert said.