Sen. Schumer pushes FRA for more bridge inspectors

RELATED TOPICS: INFRASTRUCTURE | REGULATION | SAFETY
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer has doubled down on his push to increase the number of federal railroad bridge safety specialists nationwide. Schumer’s call comes after a portion of a Syracuse railroad bridge collapsed onto South Clinton Street on July 5 of this year. Schumer said this incident shed even more light on the fact that only six specialists are tasked with overseeing rail bridge inspections and audits for the FRA, three of which cover New York in addition to dozens of other states. Additionally, Schumer reiterated his demand that the Federal Railroad Administration send a bridge safety specialist to Syracuse immediately to independently inspect and audit the city’s elevated rail line in the wake of last month’s collapse.

“After a portion of the railroad bridge in Syracuse collapsed onto South Clinton Street last month, it should have served as an eye-opening wake up call for the Federal Railroad Administration that only three people are responsible for auditing 3,000 privately-owned rail bridges that span across New York State – on top of being responsible for all of the rail bridges in over a dozen of other states. It does not take a rail safety expert to know the math simply doesn’t add up. The fact that safety concerns could be slipping through the cracks makes it clear as day that we must increase the number of inspectors and rail specialists that audit these critical links nationwide,” said Senator Schumer. “I will continue pushing for the FRA to hire more rail bridge inspectors so we can ensure that private companies are doing their job and keeping these bridges in top-notch shape.”

Schumer added “It’s been nearly two months since two 30 ton pieces of concrete sidewall collapsed onto South Clinton Street, yet the feds still have not sent an inspector to Syracuse for an independent review of the railroad’s assessment. While adding more federal inspectors will be a top priority moving forward, I am repeating my call for the FRA to send one of its current specialists to Syracuse for an independent federal inspection of the entire rail viaduct that runs through the city ASAP. It’s only through increased transparency that we can find out what went wrong in this situation so that we can work together to prevent future accidents.”

Earlier last month, Schumer echoed Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh by asking FRA Administrator Ronald Batory to send a federal inspector to Syracuse to conduct an independent inspection of the entire elevated rail bridge, as well as an audit of the most recent private inspections administered by the railroad. Schumer said that after being provided with only summary reports and “general statements of condition,” city residents should not have to rely solely on the private railroad’s own assessments. However, the FRA has yet to send an inspector to verify the railroad’s work. Schumer added that last month’s collapse, along with the lack of federal response, highlights the need for more manpower to ensure bridges across Central New York are not deteriorating or at risk of collapsing.

According to Schumer, only 1% of the 70,000 to 100,000 privately-owned train bridges across the entire country are audited in any given year. In New York State, there are only three specialists assigned to over 3,000 privately owned train bridges, and the specialists are also responsible for bridges in over a dozen other states. Schumer said that, given dense caseload, it is nearly impossible for these federal specialists to address all of the potential safety concerns surrounding these bridges and, as a result, safety issues across New York State and the country may be slipping through the cracks. Many of these bridges are owned by companies like NYS&W, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific and used predominantly for freight shipping, including the transport of hazardous material and crude oil. However, under current law, while public roadway bridges must be inspected at least every other year—a task which in New York State falls to the state Department of Transportation (NYSDOT)—privately-owned railroad bridges do not have this same requirement. Instead, train companies are required to self-inspect their own train bridges once every year and are subject to oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which ensures that the owners of these bridges are investing adequately in their maintenance and following the required load restrictions. However, Schumer said the limited number of Bridge Safety Specialists and the overall national inventory of rail bridges raises significant concerns about the specialists’ ability to properly audit the bridges and ensure that they meet design and engineering standards. For this reason, Schumer said he will continue to push for an increase in FRA rail bridge inspector staff.

New York has provided a vital geographic rail link between the Midwest and East coast ports for centuries, in addition to moving thousands of passengers by rail each day. As a result, the rail bridges that carry these freight and passenger trains over other roadways and bodies of water on a daily basis are often carrying heavier shipments than they were designed to with increasing frequency. Schumer said this means these bridges are likely to be deteriorating at a faster rate and, therefore, are in desperate need of inspection and auditing to ensure the safety of passenger trains and the communities through which freight trains run. However, Schumer said, despite the clear need to keep up with the maintenance and inspection of these train bridges, there are too few Bridge Safety Specialists employed by the FRA to properly monitor and audit the entire system. Schumer revealed that there are roughly 3,000 rail bridges across New York State, including 2,158 in Upstate New York and over 260 in Central New York alone.

A copy of Schumer’s letter to the Federal Railroad Administration calling for an independent inspection of the city’s rail bridge appears below:

Dear Administrator Batory:

I urge you to immediately conduct a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspection of the entire elevated rail viaduct in the City of Syracuse, as well as an audit of the most recent inspections conducted by New York Susquehanna & Western (NYS&W) Railroad. Following the collapse of a portion of the NYS&W railroad bridge in Downtown Syracuse on July 5th, the city has received summaries of bridge inspection reports on the elevated railroad within city limits. However these summaries lack adequate information for city officials to assess the full range of safety concerns that exist along the viaduct. I ask the FRA to use their authority to help assure Syracuse residents that the bridges under which they walk and drive are safe.

The railroad track runs roughly 6.5 miles through the City of Syracuse, much of it is elevated and passes through the city’s densely populated downtown. It is my understanding, as required by federal law, rail bridge inspections that evaluate the entire structure are done annually by railroad owners and then, where appropriate, audited by Federal Railroad Administration staff. It is also my understanding that the FRA coordinates with railroad owners on these reports in addition to performing random inspections of rail bridges. Due to the circumstances surrounding this incident, it is appropriate the FRA utilize this authority to both conduct an independent examination of the viaduct as well as audit most recent private inspection reports.

I have made it a priority to increase the number of federal railroad bridge safety specialists nationwide and urged railroad companies to do their part to keep bridges safe by providing timely information on the state of rail bridges. The most recent bridge collapse, and the lack of information made available by both the NYS&W and FRA, shows there is still much work that needs to be done. Without the complete inspection reports conducted by the private railroad made available to city officials and residents, it is necessary that the FRA conduct its own inspection of the rail bridge. It’s only through increased transparency that we can find out what went wrong in this situation so that we can work together to prevent future accidents.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff.

–From a Senator Charles F. Schumer press release

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