For more than a century, California has relied on assurances from railroad companies that thousands of rail bridges across the state, from spindly trestles in remote canyons to iron workhorses in urban areas, are safe and well-maintained to handle heavy freight traffic.
That era of trust is over. Concerned about the growing number of trains traversing the state filled with crude oil and other hazardous materials, the California Public Utilities Commission is launching its first railroad bridge inspection program this fall. Federal officials say it will be the first state-run review of privately owned rail bridges in the country.
The goal, the PUC says, is to end what a recent report called the “dearth of information on the structural integrity of California’s railroad bridges.” Almost all train bridges in the state are owned and maintained by private railroads. Federal rules require railroads to inspect those bridges annually.
One of those private bridges, the 103-year-old I Street Bridge in downtown Sacramento, sits in the heart of a heavily populated area, straddles an important public waterway, and also carries thousands of cars daily. Another, the dramatic Clear Creek Trestle in the Feather River Canyon, carries trains through remote, rugged terrain where the risk of derailment is relatively high. Both bridges are expected to be conduits for increased hazardous material shipments.
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“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,” said PUC Rail Safety Deputy Director Paul King. “Given the heightened risk of one of these crude oil trains derailing and given the projections of a significant increase in tonnage across these bridges, we need to fulfill this role.”
It will be a limited program, however. The PUC, which is responsible for assuring safe rail systems in California, is hiring two bridge inspectors this fall for the massive task of verifying the integrity of an estimated 5,000 bridges statewide. Those inspectors are expected to conduct visual inspections at bridges and to audit railroad companies’ inspection and maintenance programs.
They are among seven new rail safety division inspectors being hired from funds allocated this summer by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and state legislators. The funding is a direct result of growing fears at the state Capitol and in cities along the rail lines about the potential for derailments and explosions as more crude oil trains begin rolling through the state. A crude oil train explosion last year in Canada killed 47 people.
The other new hires will be used to bolster existing utilities commission teams of track, equipment and train inspectors. Track and rail car inspections are one of the few regulatory functions states are allowed in dealing with railroads, working in conjunction with the Federal Railroad Administration, which maintains regulatory control over rail operations nationally.
The launch of a bridge inspection program comes amid ongoing criticism of the PUC after a catastrophic 2010 gas line explosion in San Bruno in which eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed. Critics say the PUC wasn’t adequately overseeing Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s pipeline maintenance and inspection efforts. The National Transportation Safety Board cited “CPUC’s failure to detect the inadequacies of PG&E’s pipeline integrity management program.”
Mindy Spatt of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group and PUC watchdog, said she is not familiar with the rail bridge inspection program, but that the commission needs to be proactive and independent to protect the public.
“We would hope one thing the PUC has learned is its job is not to trust utility companies, but to oversee them,” Spatt said. “When the PUC doesn’t do its job, there can be really disastrous results.”
Bridge failures are rare, safety officials say, but consequences are potentially huge. The largest chemical spill in California history, in Dunsmuir in 1991, involved a train derailment on the curving Cantara Loop bridge that poisoned more than 40 miles of the Sacramento River. The bridge structure did not fail, but it has since undergone major modifications to reduce chances of another derailment.
The PUC bridge inspection program faces a notable upfront challenge. The commission does not yet have a comprehensive list of railroad bridges in the state, and may struggle to come up with one that includes detailed design specifications and load capacities on all bridges. PUC officials are negotiating with Union Pacific and BNSF railroads to gain access to their in-house bridge inventories.
To help fill out its inventory, the PUC said it may resort to Google searches, including tapping an amateur bridge fan website, www.bridgehunter.com.
The two bridge inspectors likely will work as a team. PUC officials calculate that the two of them can view two bridges a day, two days a week. The other three days will be for travel and report writing. “At a rate of 98 bridges per year, it would take approximately 50 years to complete inspections,” the PUC said in a report last month on its bridge review plans.
Those numbers are “intimidating,” but the job is not as improbable as it seems, King said. The PUC inspectors, like federal bridge inspectors, will serve largely in a safety review role, making sure the railroad companies are doing their jobs. Although they will visit bridges and look them over, they will not have the time or equipment to conduct full, detailed inspections.
“This is an oversight situation,” King said. “We are looking at the railroads’ inspection program, trying to verify it. Our inspectors’ role is to do spot checks. We may find that we need more inspectors. It is hard to tell at this point. We are plowing new ground.”
For their part, Union Pacific and BNSF, the state’s two major railroads, say they spend substantial time and money making sure bridges are in good shape. Union Pacific said it has six full-time, two-person crews supported by more than 50 bridge maintenance employees in California.
“Safety is just as important to Union Pacific as it is to anyone,” the railroad said in an email. “Our hope is that the CPUC continues to recognize and support this important element of our safe and efficient freight transportation efforts.”
BNSF officials say they inspect their 1,100 railway bridges in California two or three times a year, more than required by the Federal Railroad Administration, as well as after major events such as earthquakes and storms.
“BNSF is committed to ensuring that we operate on a safe and reliable rail network and therefore invests millions of operating and capital dollars annually into routine and major rehabilitation, repair, and upgrading of railway bridges and structures in California,” BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said in an email.
The PUC plans to come up with a priority list by year’s end of 30 key bridges for initial visits next year. This list will include bridges that have the highest probability of failure based on age, materials, design, traffic and other risk factors, such as proximity to an earthquake fault. The PUC will merge that list with an analysis of which bridges have the highest potential for negative outcomes if they fail. Those may include bridges used frequently by trains carrying hazardous materials, as well as bridges near schools, hospitals and population centers.
The calculation also will include bridges that cross sensitive waterways, such as the Feather, American and Sacramento rivers that carry drinking water for Northern California.
PUC officials say they hope to have inspectors looking at the first 10 to 15 bridges in the first half of 2015. The rest in the priority group would be inspected by the end of 2015.
A Federal Railroad Administration official said his agency welcomes California’s decision to inspect bridges.
“California already has the largest involvement in our safety program and we welcome the addition of more state assistance,” said spokesman Michael Booth. “It’s what we call a force multiplier.”