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Forum editorial: Share data on bridge condition

The reluctance of railroads to share information about the condition of their bridges is curious. It does nothing to moderate railroads' "bad neighbor" reputation, and certainly does not serve the cause of public safety. A Minnesota Public Radio ...

The reluctance of railroads to share information about the condition of their bridges is curious. It does nothing to moderate railroads’ “bad neighbor” reputation, and certainly does not serve the cause of public safety. A Minnesota Public Radio investigation (Forum, July 27) revealed not only the rail companies’ intransigence on this matter, but also the gaps in federal inspections. The companies respond they do their own intensive inspections, and that’s more than sufficient. Maybe so, but it sounds like the fox guarding the henhouse.
Those rail bridge inspections that can be done by local and state agencies are incomplete because railroads block access to bridge decks. Inspectors can see exposed supports and the steel understory, but are barred from looking at decks and don’t have access to load bearing and design data. As a result, local and state inspectors told MPR, assessments of safety cannot be done by state engineers.
Railroads counter that their inspection regime is rigorous and bridges meet federal safety standards. However, the Federal Railroad Administration admits it does not have enough inspectors to challenge or confirm the companies’ inspections. Additionally, rail companies contend that even old bridges, which were designed to take heavy loads like steam locomotives, are safe for today’s increased rail traffic.
Fair enough. It’s reasonable to assume railroads don’t want unsafe bridges – that a bridge closure or failure can cost companies millions of dollars. But hundreds of railroad bridges span highways, city streets, rivers and other public spaces. Think of the long rail trestle over the Sheyenne River Valley at Valley City, N.D. The public’s interest in the condition of rail bridges is legitimate. Railroads should embrace partnerships with local and state inspectors in order to assure the public the bridges, even the oldest ones, are sound. Instead, companies opt to keep data secret and bar local inspectors from bridge decks. Makes you wonder why …

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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