STODDARD, Wis. -- On the afternoon of June 6, Kevin Gobel pulled into town after work and noticed dozens of railroad workers and trucks gathered near the village’s only railroad crossing.
Perturbed at trucks parked across the tracks and blocking the road, Gobel, the village president, went looking for whoever was in charge to ask what was going on.
The answer: We’ve got a real problem at the bridge south of town.
Gobel, who is also a Vernon County supervisor, called Chad Buros, the county’s emergency management director. Together they drove about three quarters of a mile south on Hwy. 35 to where a swarm of crews were busy working on the BNSF railroad bridge over the mouth of Coon Creek.
They talked to a BNSF worker at the site, but didn’t get much more information.
“It was real vague,” Buros said. “He said they were dealing with some repair maintenance issues.”
Gobel said he eventually called the railroad and talked to a company spokesperson
“Basically blah blah blah,” he said. “She tried to tell me she didn’t know of any problems. Don’t tell me that.”
As it turned out, the problem was an “incipient failure” on one span of the 112-year-old bridge, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Train traffic was halted for 12 hours as crews put timber blocking under the span and nine others “that appeared susceptible to the same mode of failure.”
But six months later, Gobel still has little information about the bridge, which carries an average of 16 million gallons of volatile crude oil each day.
“Nobody’s ever gotten an official report from BNSF about what’s taken place there in June,” he said. “Local governments need to be informed of what’s going on. I haven’t seen any documents stating what the status of them bridges are.”
Local officials and the general public are largely in the dark about the nation’s freight railroads, which carry growing volumes of flammable crude oil, while state and federal governments have limited authority and oversight.
And when it comes to rail bridge safety, the industry is generally left to police itself.
Concerned citizens have documented cracked and crumbling rail bridges along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River that engineers say are troubling and that prompted federal authorities to take a closer look. BNSF assures the public the bridges are safe, but the government does not have structural engineers to independently verify their claims. And unlike highway bridges, inspection reports are secret, unavailable to the public and local officials.
There isn’t even an inventory of bridges.
“What makes me nervous is the responsibility of safety for railroad bridges rests with the owner of the track. You’d like to think they use good faith and safety and upkeep of the bridges … but it only takes some poor owners that don’t take it as seriously,” said Pat Salvi, a Chicago attorney who handles rail accidents. “The consequences are so potentially dramatic.”
BNSF says its bridges are inspected at least once a year -- some twice or more -- by trained bridge inspectors as well as structural engineers, consultant and contractors. Canadian Pacific, which carries far less oil, says it also has a rigorous inspection program. Both maintain inventories.
But neither the reports nor the inventories are available to the public.
Railroad bridge failures are rare, said Frank Douma, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Center for Transportation Studies.
Yet he acknowledges the stakes are higher when trains are hauling hazardous materials: “The difference between an oil train and a grain train derailing is what happens when it derails.”
Little oversight, little access
The Federal Railroad Administration is tasked with oversight and enforcement of rail safety.
In a 2007 report, the federal Government Accountability Office outlined how little oversight the agency exercises over rail bridges, more than half of which were built before 1920.
The GAO recommended, among other things, that the FRA devise “a systematic, consistent, risk-based methodology for selecting railroads for its bridge safety surveys.”
In addition, a joint FRA-industry committee recommended the agency create and maintain a detailed bridge inventory. That never happened.
Since the release of that report, the agency has created a bridge inspection program, which spokesman Mike England said entails audits of the railroads’ inspection programs as well as spot checks by FRA inspectors.
But there are just six inspectors for the nation's estimated 76,000 rail bridges; only two are engineers.
“The railroad has the oversight of the bridge. The FRA has oversight of the railroad,” said Greg Baer, statewide railroad structure and track engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
According to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in the four years since the bridge inspection program was adopted, the FRA has looked at just 14 Canadian Pacific bridges in eastern Wisconsin, and none in Minnesota. It has yet to conduct a regular inspection of a BNSF bridge on more than 1,800 miles of track in either state.
The FRA has yet to produce any documents in response to a September request for audit records.
And while the FRA has access to the railroads’ structural inspection reports, those documents are hidden from public view.
England said the primary objective of FRA bridge inspections is to verify the bridge’s physical appearance matches what’s in the railroad’s report – to “make sure they’re not fudging anything” – but that inspections are thorough.
But inspection reports obtained by the Tribune offer little detail.
An FRA inspector’s July 30 report of a CP bridge in Milwaukee, reads in full:
“Observation of Bridge 84.99 and review of the latest bridge inspection report. This bridge includes a TRT swing span over the Menominee River. This bridge has 3 spans, TRT and beams, concrete substructure, open deck, double track, and is 293' long. Bridge conditions observed generally correspond with conditions reported on bridge inspection report dated 6/18/2014.”
The reports shows that inspector looked at 13 bridges in a single day along nearly 45 miles of track in two counties.
Douma notes that unlike highways and airports, which are built and maintained by government, railroads are and always have been private enterprises. They came into existence at a time when the federal government was much smaller, and at least as concerned about keeping the union together as moving people across the continent.
Prior to the 1980s, railroads were subject to strict economic regulation, but the rails have always been on private land and largely out of government oversight.
Earlier this year, the state of California launched its own rail bridge inspection program in response to increasing oil train traffic and what one report labeled “the dearth of information and lack of regulatory oversight regarding the structural integrity of California’s rail bridges.”
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The FRA says it is the only such state-run program in the nation.
The PUC would not make officials available for an interview, but in an agency spokesman said by email they are the process of hiring two bridge inspectors and will implement the new program “as soon as possible.”
“I don’t mean to criticize the railroads’ programs, but for the public to have the confidence that bridges are in good shape, our role is to offer oversight,” PUC Rail Safety Deputy Director Paul King told the Sacramento Bee. “Given the heightened risk of one of these crude oil trains derailing and given the projections of significant increase in tonnage across these bridges, we need to fulfill this role.”
The FRA does have the authority to order a bridge closed, as it did in 1996, 1999 and most recently 2006. In each case, orders were issued only after the owners of the bridges ignored repeated warnings to repair serious defects.
The typical maximum civil penalty for violations is $25,000, though in cases of “grossly negligent violation or where a pattern of repeated violations has caused death or injury or an imminent hazard of death or injury” fines can reach $105,000.
“That’s not really much of a hammer,” Salvi said.
According to FRA records, BNSF settled 418 track safety violations in 2012, the most violations per mile of any of the seven Class 1 railroads. Those track violations resulted in fines of $865,000, of which BNSF paid $569,725.
Last year, BNSF reported a pre-tax profit of almost $6.7 billion on revenues in excess of $21.5 billion.
Bridge conditions spark concern
In June, when the swarm of workers showed up to fix the bridge in Stoddard, Guy Wolf started to get worried about the state of the bridges near his home in Mohawk Valley.
Wolf, a retired university retention specialist and avid angler, used a kayak to navigate up the mouth of Coon Creek to get a closer look at the emergency repairs.
“What really concerned me -- they had things circled. Cracks,” he said. “You could begin to see that parts of the bridge were lower (than other parts). All this lumber stacked up under the bridge.”
He started looking at other bridges and was startled at their appearance. Over the summer, Wolf and La Crescent wildlife photographer Alan Stankevitz, who runs a blog where he tracks rail safety issues, began photographing rail bridges along the Mississippi River backwaters between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien.
They documented cracked supports, exposed reinforcing steel rods, and chunks of missing concrete.
But looks can be deceiving, according to the railroad, which assures all the bridges are sound.
“Railroad bridges are typically not pretty; but they are functional and safe,” said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth. “The visual appearance of these structures is not indicative of their structural integrity.”
While it is impossible to determine a bridge’s structural integrity from photographs, four engineers who looked at the photos agreed there are signs of serious deterioration.
Al Ghorbanpoor, a professor and director of the Structural Engineering Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said while a thorough assessment would be required, “the photographs give the impression that the condition of these bridge structures should be of concern. There is clear evidence of excessive deterioration that could have negative impact on the structural integrity of these bridges.”
Most agreed the Coon Creek bridge was the most troubling, though John Zachar, a professor of architectural engineering Milwaukee School of Engineering, expressed concerns about the pictures of a bridge in Genoa where concrete breakage has left exposed rebar at the base of piers and on one of the spans.
“That is a significant structural deficiency,” Zachar said. “I’d say there’s no question about it. This is something we ought to look at.”
But John Bennett, a former vice president of planning and systems for Amtrak and policy adviser rail bridges can be sound even after losing some of their structural integrity.
“Many of these bridges were built 50 or 100 years ago, (when) standards weren’t as well known,” Bennett said. “Many of these bridges have been overbuilt in terms of strength.”
Wolf and other rail safety activists presented the photos to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who wrote to the FRA in September urging a quick inspection of the bridges.
The FRA says it sent inspectors to look at a dozen Mississippi River bridges and a letter to Baldwin said neither BNSF nor its own inspections revealed any conditions “that inhibit the ability of these bridges to safely carry rail traffic.”
But the agency did not release those reports in response to a FOIA request and has declined to provide access to them.
(Update, Dec. 19, 2014: the FRA has released a memo detailing the investigation.)
According to the letter, the four bridges pictured were built between 1911 and 1923 and show deterioration -- cracking and spalling concrete, exposed rebar -- typical for rail bridges of that age.
The letter also notes that BNSF is monitoring the Coon Creek bridge, and the temporary blocking, through twice weekly inspection. The FRA went on to say BNSF is inspecting its bridges twice as often as required by the agency and accurately documenting conditions.
Railroads have enjoyed substantial growth in revenue and profit in recent years as the U.S. economy has recovered.
BNSF says it is sinking record amounts of that money back into its infrastructure: the railroad spent $5.5 billion last year on capital improvements, and has announced plans to spend $6 billion this year -- about half of that on maintaining its physical infrastructure, such as tracks and bridges.
Indeed, workers this fall cut an access road to the Coon Creek bridge in preparation for its replacement, which BNSF said was scheduled for 2015 even before the most recent problems were detected.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the railroad industry a C+ in its most recent report card on U.S. infrastructure, which Bennett said is largely due to the investments the big four railroads are making in their infrastructure.
In fact, Bennett said, railroad infrastructure is generally better funded than highways.
"One of the good things about the railroad, they have a business model that actually works -- they’re able to extract enough profits from operations to invest in infrastructure,” he said. “As opposed to highways … The highway bridge systems are much more perilous in terms of getting funding.”
“It’s certainly in our best interest to prevent accidents and keep our infrastructure sound,” McBeth said. “That’s why you see record investments in infrastructure.”
Industry experts say safety is in the railroads’ best interest.
“They can make more money by being able to move more trains faster rather than (by) deferring maintenance,” said Douma, the University of Minnesota transportation scholar. “If something blows up along the Mississippi, that basically cuts off BNSF from the rest of the country. That’s not going to do them very well.”
“They have every motivation to make sure they’re infrastructure is in good shape,” Bennett said. “And they’re not financially hurting.”
But there is no way for the public -- or even local government officials -- to know for sure.
That’s what continues to worry Stoddard Village President Kevin Gobel.
“If we walked out today and the Cass St. bridge is closed down …. and a bunch of DOT guys are working on it ... They’re probably going to tell us what’s going on,” he said. “They don’t have to tell us all their trade secrets. Whether its Stoddard or La Crosse or Prairie du Chien, everybody who lives along the tracks ought to have some basic knowledge of what’s going on.”