Area officials content with rail maintenance in their towns
A railroad bridge on Golf Road on July 26 near Glenview. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:34PM
When it comes to safely transporting tons of freight and trainloads of commuters from one place to the next, Chicago suburbs typically stay out of a railroad company’s way despite the railroads’ daily presence in their communities.
With the exception of the July 4 train derailment and bridge collapse that killed two people near the Glenview-Northbrook border, local municipal staff said they have rarely, if ever, heard of or witnessed potential issues with the rail systems that run through their respective towns.
“Their track record is OK,” Morton Grove Village Engineer Chris Tomich said of Metra, which owns a bridge over Golf Road on the village’s border with Glenview, as well as a set of tracks that slices through Morton Grove and Niles.
Mousa Nazzal, superintendent of engineering in Niles, said the commuter rail line operates efficiently on its own.
“I’ve been in the village for 21 years and we never had problems,” he said. “If there is any problem with the track, they come and fix it.”
Since railway companies perform their own inspections and repairs, the villages are not involved in the upkeep of tracks or bridges.
“What it amounts to at the end of the day is they are responsible for their rail line,” Tomich said. “We need to let them operate.”
On the other hand, if bridges begin to crumble and trains run off course, “communities would call for them to account for that,” he said.
Railroads, not local governments, maintain their own rail tracks and bridges, which must be inspected twice annually to comply with federal law.
Rail companies are not required to routinely provide the Federal Railroad Administration with the results of those inspections.
The FRA has said it would be “counterproductive” to require the submission of inspection reports and that 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.
That isn’t to say lines of communication between private rail companies and municipalities are nonexistent.
In Park Ridge, for example, Public Works staff regularly notify Union Pacific of issues involving the rail tracks that cut through the city’s downtown area, which are utilized by Metra.
Superintendent of Public Works Brian Wiebe said the railway company has sent workers for stone removal and wall patching, as well as to replace bulbs in lampposts that line the tracks.
He said the concrete wall bordering the tracks on Main Street, in particular, has demanded routine maintenance due to cracking.
Union Pacific also owns a bridge at Touhy Avenue and Busse Highway that has seen its fair share of repairs.
Wiebe said the city made a formal complaint a few years ago concerning the viaduct, as debris and stones had been falling onto the street below.
He said, in one case, a slab of concrete broke off and damaged two cars.
Unable to make the repairs themselves, Public Works staff called Union Pacific, which then dispatched workers to board up the underpass and repair cracks found along other areas of the Main Street wall.
“These guys are on top of their game,” Wiebe said. “But they can’t be out there 24/7.”
Though Wiebe said he sees inspectors on the tracks frequently, he said he isn’t aware of their schedule for maintenance.
Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile explained that Metra owns the commuter trains that run on the Union Pacific/Northwest line through Park Ridge but contracts with Union Pacific to operate its services. Metra also pays Union Pacific a certain percentage for maintenance and repairs.
Metra inspects its own bridges at least once a year and its rail tracks every three days, as required by the FRA, Reile said.
Some bridges, particularly those that are older, are inspected on a more-frequent basis, she said.
Extreme weather conditions also trigger increased safety checks.
“In hot weather, when it’s above the 90s, we’re going in every day,” Reile said. “We increase inspections because they’re more likely to be an issue.”
Though the FRA does not require inspections reports be turned over on a regular basis, railway companies are still held accountable for ensuring the safety of their systems, Reile said. The FRA conducts audits on a yearly basis and can demand reports at any time, she said.
“It’s an honor system but it has a backup behind it,” Reile said. “We have interactions (with the FRA) on a regular basis.”
She said inspection reports are made available to the public by request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Pioneer Press has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to several agencies that deal with railroads asking for information, such as inspection reports, concerning rail bridges. Metra has indicated it is working on the request. Pioneer Press is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to get information about railroad tracks.
Jeff Sorensen, deputy chief of the Park Ridge Fire Department, couldn’t recall a recent situation involving a freight or commuter train but, if an emergency did occur, his staff is prepared to respond.
More often than not an accident involving the railroad would be an isolated, localized situation that could be adequately addressed by the village’s fire and police staff, he said.
“As much as it’s a horrible emergency scene, (a train derailment) is not a disaster by definition,” he said.
Park Ridge could also rely on Niles, Des Plaines and other neighbors to provide backup thanks to shared mutual-aid response system, Sorensen said.
“If you need 25 engines, 25 ambulances, 25 ladder trucks and 10 fire chiefs, they’ll be here within the hour,” he said.
Sorensen said the Park Ridge Fire Department conducted evacuation drills in conjunction with Metra in the past, though it has been a while. Officials are now in the preliminary stage of discussing opportunities for collaboration.
“We do plan to do a drill specific to the viaduct in future,” he said.
Tomich said routine maintenance of rail tracks and bridges is integral to preventing future catastrophes. He’s worried what could happen decades from now if more work isn’t done to preserve the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
“I think our level of investment in infrastructure nationally is inadequate,” he said, noting how the current U.S. Congress could not pass a comprehensive transportation bill without it becoming a partisan issue.
“By the time (transportation systems) have reached their design age, we’ll have to replace them incrementally or end up with a huge bill,” Tomich said. “It’s going to be rough road if we don’t address it (in the years) 2030 or 2040.
“We’re kicking the can down the road.”
— Chicago Sun-Times reporter Tina Sfondeles contributed to this report.