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DOT Looks at US Rail Bridge Safety

Monday, May 9, 2016

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The U.S. Department of Transportation recently conducted an audit of its Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), citing safety concerns related to increasing traffic volume and loads traveling over the nation’s aging bridges.

FRA data indicates that, although rare, structural failures of railroad bridges caused 21 train accidents between 2007 and 2014.

The Office of Inspector General report, FRA Lacks Guidance on Overseeing Compliance with Bridge Safety Standards, outlines areas where the railroad bridge review process is currently lacking and offers six recommendations for improvement to the rail agency, the office said in a statement.

railroad bridge
© iStock.com / CraigVeltri

The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation recently assessed the Federal Railroad Administration's processes for ensuring that track owners’ bridge management programs comply with its rules on bridge safety.

Privy to an early draft of the report, the FRA has agreed with the OIG’s proposals and initiated actions to implement them.

“While FRA does not regulate construction of railroad bridges, we take seriously our charge from Congress to conduct strenuous and consistent oversight of railroads’ own bridge safety management plans,” Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg wrote in response.

FRA and Rail Bridge Safety

The FRA oversees railroad bridge safety through a staff of specialists that make up a unit in the Agency’s Rail and Infrastructure Integrity Division.

At this time, four specialists work throughout the country, each focusing on one or more of the administration’s geographical regions, and report to the chief engineer in FRA’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

In 2010, the FRA issued a rule on Bridge Safety Standards that requires railroad track owners to implement bridge management programs that include procedures for determining bridge load capacities and inspecting bridges, the DOT said.

The FRA specialists are responsible for overseeing bridge safety reviews, as well as bridge observations and bridge accident investigations—duties that are not directly related to the Bridge Safety Standards but are related to railroad bridge safety or the safety of people on or around the bridges.

deterioration on steel bridge pile
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers participated in the audit, reviewing the quality of bridge inspections by two track owners by examining a random sample of six bridges for each owner.

When a specialist identifies an issue of regulatory non-compliance during a bridge safety review, several enforcement actions are available to encourage the track owner’s compliance. These actions include a defect report, a violation report recommending a civil penalty, as well as other more severe actions.

Findings: Lack of Formal Program

The OIG audit determined that the FRA’s current safety review process is lacking in several areas.

The agency has not provided guidance to its specialists regarding how to prioritize track owners and railroad bridges for bridge safety reviews, the report notes. According to an FRA official, the agency instead relies on the professional judgment of its bridge safety specialists, who have reached informal consensus on how to prioritize track owners.

Moreover, the FRA reportedly does not maintain a comprehensive list of track owners required to comply with its safety standards. Instead the specialists rely on a list of railroads required to submit monthly reports on safety and operating data. While these railroads own the majority of the country’s rail bridges, the report indicates the list does not include those track owners not required to submit reports (e.g., private industrial tracks and tourist railroads) but who still must comply with safety standards.

FRA also has not developed guidance and procedures for its specialists to follow when conducting bridge safety reviews, according to the report. “Some specialists spot checked items noted in inspection reports, while others focused on the most deteriorated bridge conditions,” the OIG report says. As a result, the specialists may not appropriately address all issues of regulatory non-compliance or communicate clear performance expectations, it adds.

Furthermore, the report indicates FRA does not provide guidelines on how to track and follow up on non-compliance and recommend civil penalties. Instead, each specialist uses his or her own tracking method to perform follow-up but most likely do not document their efforts in any FRA system, which keeps other staff in the dark about resolution of non-compliance.

Bridge Scour
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The OIG also examined the most recent versions of track owners’ bridge management programs to determine whether the owners had corrected defects that FRA previously identified.

Additionally, within the audit’s sample, specialists did not conduct follow-up reviews of track owners responsible for 55 percent of non-compliance issues, and track owners were 35 percent less likely to correct issues when FRA did not follow up. “Therefore, FRA cannot be sure that track owners mitigate bridge safety risks,” the report claims.

Recommendations and Implementation

In a preliminary report supplied to the FRA, the OIG recommended the federal railroad administrator:

  • Issue guidance for specialists to implement a data-driven, risk-based methodology for prioritizing bridge safety reviews;
  • Develop and implement a plan to identify and regularly update a comprehensive list of entities regulated by FRA’s bridge safety standards;
  • Issue guidance that defines how bridge safety specialists should conduct their oversight reviews;
  • Require that bridge safety specialists report all instances of regulatory non-compliance in their reviews as defects;
  • Issue guidance that defines how bridge safety specialists should track and follow-up on identified issues of regulatory non-compliance to verify that owners take remedial actions; and
  • Issue guidance that defines when and how bridge safety specialists should recommend civil penalties for non-compliance with Bridge Safety Standards.

In its response, the FRA indicated that it agreed with the findings and noted that more than a year ago it had “recognized the need for, and began implementing, significant changes in its bridge safety oversight organization and approach.”

It noted that it has implemented enhanced leadership and increased oversight of bridge specialists and improved its process for prioritizing bridge safety oversight reviews. It is also finalizing instructions providing specific direction to the bridge specialists regarding enforcement activity.

The FRA also plans to create a more comprehensive inventory of bridge owners so it is more aware of aware of all entities subject to the bridge safety standards.

It expects to complete all actions related to the recommendations by May 15, with the exception of the inventory strategy, which it anticipates resolving by June 30.

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Certifications and standards; Corrosion; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Railroad Administration; Inspection; North America; Program/Project Management; Rail; Safety

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