Listen: 20150723_AUDIO_rail_bridges_gunderson

MPR’s Dan Gunderson investigates railroad bridge safety concerns in Minnesota. More than 330 railroad bridges pass over freeways, highways, and streets in Minnesota. Last year state and local inspectors determined that one in five of those was structurally deficient.


2016 RTDNA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / Investigative Reporting category


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DAN GUNDERSON: Two railroad bridges cross Monroe Street in Northeast Minneapolis about a block apart. A train rumbling across is one of dozens that roll over the bridges every day. These bridges were built in 1924 and they show their age. Inspection photos show concrete has crumbled and fallen off, leaving rebar exposed. Steel is heavily rusted.

This past February, Pam Hill and her husband were returning to their Northeast Minneapolis home after dinner. As they drove under one of the Monroe Street bridges, a chunk of debris fell on their car.

PAM HILL: And punched through about a quarter-sized hole into our windshield and just shattered the rest. It was extremely loud, at first we thought it was a gunshot. If it had come through the windshield, it would have hit my husband pretty much directly.

DAN GUNDERSON: Minneapolis inspectors have noted loose and missing concrete on the bridges for more than 15 years. BNSF crews made some repairs last week. Railroads own the bridges and are responsible for repairs. They're also responsible for inspections. Under federal rules, railroads are required to have a bridge inspection program and inspect bridges at least once a year, and railroads must audit their own bridge program to ensure those inspections are adequate.

The Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, also has authority to inspect rail bridges and audit railroad programs. It's unclear how often that happens. The FRA did not respond to requests for an interview. A Freedom of Information request for its bridge inspection records filed in early June is still pending. A recent government report found the FRA inspects less than 1% of the nation's rail infrastructure each year.

Washington DC-based railroad safety Attorney Larry Mann represents railroad workers. He also helped write the Railroad Safety Act of 1970. Mann says there is little federal oversight of rail bridges by the FRA.

LARRY MANN: They are limited in their ability to do their job because they have limited numbers of inspectors. I can't emphasize enough the lack of adequate inspection ability at FRA.

DAN GUNDERSON: But we can get a glimpse of Minnesota railroad bridge conditions through inspections done by state, county, and city inspectors. Minnesota law requires inspection of all railroad bridges that cross streets or highways. We got inspection reports for 330 railroad bridges across the state. The most recent inspections show 71 bridges had at least one major component in poor condition, 12 bridges had a major component in serious condition.

Bridge inspection engineer Todd Neimann runs the day-to-day operations of the MnDOT Bridge Office. He says in order to know if a bridge is safe, an inspector needs to evaluate the bridge design and the load it carries. But railroads don't give that information to the state, and Neimann says railroads usually deny state inspectors access to bridges.

TODD NIEMANN: Our numbers aren't an assessment of safety, they're an assessment of condition.

DAN GUNDERSON: Inspection reports tell the story of each bridge and they show repairs are often delayed for years. Bridge number 90265 carries more than 100 BNSF trains a day in and out of the Northtown rail yard across Lowry Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis. In 2014, the 83-year-old bridge substructure or foundation was listed in serious condition, but the inspection story for this bridge starts years earlier.

In 2006, a Hennepin County inspector noted severe deterioration of concrete columns on the Lowry Street Bridge. Each year, these reports are sent to BNSF. In 2011, a county inspector noted that BNSF should make repairing the concrete columns a high priority. He told the railroad the crumbling columns could affect the bridge's load capacity.

Then in 2013, a handwritten note said, "Please address the column problems. They are serious." Hennepin County bridge program administrator Jim Archer says there's no record of a response from the railroad, but that's not unusual.

JIM ARCHER: We make a suggestion, and then it becomes kind of a firm recommendation if you will. And then next thing you know we're looking at their bridge on an annual basis instead of every other year, and we're pretty concerned about it.

DAN GUNDERSON: The concrete columns of the Lowry Street Bridge were repaired sometime after the May 2014 inspection. BNSF declined an interview request, but said in an email its bridges are inspected regularly and are safe for the traffic they carry. Inspectors say obvious deterioration like falling concrete or rust doesn't mean a bridge is likely to collapse, but deferred maintenance can weaken bridge supports over time.

Bridge number 69833 carries trainloads of taconite pellets across Interstate 35 to a loading dock in the Duluth Harbor. The massive steel structure towering over four lanes of traffic was built in 1966. About 42,000 vehicles a day pass under the bridge, and about 30 ore trains a day roll overhead. MnDOT inspectors say the lower part of the bridge, including columns and supporting beams, is in serious condition. Corrosion is the primary concern for the steel girder bridge.

After a 2009 inspection, the MnDOT inspector wrote to Canadian National Railroad asking to see a structural analysis because of advanced corrosion. CN did not share its documents with state inspectors. The railroad declined to record an interview for this story, but a spokesman said the Duluth bridge is regularly inspected, heavily built, and safe for traffic.

MnDOT bridge inspector Kevin Rowland told me if this bridge were owned by the state, he would request an analysis to see if the bridge should have load restrictions. There's another railroad bridge that highlights tension between state bridge inspectors and the railroads. Bridge number 6408 is in Moorhead. The steel bridge carries BNSF traffic, including oil trains across US Highway 10. It was built in 1952.

Like many railroad bridges, this one has a low clearance over the highway. It's been hit several times by passing trucks or equipment. In 2014 inspection, the district MnDOT inspector noted there were broken bolts and that about 30 rivets had been sheared off by impact on the lower girders. A girder was also bent.

MnDOT asked BNSF for its railroad inspection report and structural analysis for the bridge. BNSF responded that its inspection found nothing that would require immediate repair or restrictions for train traffic. The railroad refused to share its reports. MnDOT inspector Andrew Fischbach says the bridge damage isn't critical.

ANDREW FISCHBACH: But if it were to get hit once, maybe twice more without the railroad doing any repairs, it could cause that to escalate into a critical situation that could have been avoided.

DAN GUNDERSON: Rail bridges are aging. According to the best available data, the average age of a rail bridge in Minnesota is 66 years, and nearly half were built before 1940. Railroads say they have robust bridge maintenance programs, but there are no public records of the repairs or upgrades to those bridges over the decades.

Railroad bridges are also carrying heavier loads. Retired MIT Professor Carl Martland says freight cars hauling heavy commodities like coal, grain, or oil weigh 286,000 pounds. That's more than 100,000 pounds heavier than the same cars 50 years ago. Martland spent much of his career studying railroads, and says the industry has a strong economic incentive to keep bridges in good shape. A bridge in poor condition can force trains to slow down. Martland says heavier loads prompted a lot of analysis when they became an industry standard in 1990.

CARL MARTLAND: Bridge engineers were very, very worried about heavy axle loads. So they were very anxious to ensure that implementing heavier axle loads would not cause a crisis.

DAN GUNDERSON: So there were a lot of studies of the heavier train loads, some predicted damage to bridges. Allan Zarembski was hired by the rail industry to analyze the infrastructure cost of heavier loads. He's director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware. Zarembski says heavier train cars increased railroad profits, and that means there's more money to invest in infrastructure. And Zarembski argues even old railroad bridges in a state of disrepair are safe because they were designed for heavy steam engines.

ALLAN ZAREMBSKI: And as a result, a lot of the bridges that are 50, 60, 70 years old are still pretty good. Go look at the accident and derailment statistics that are published on the FRA website. You will have to search very, very, very, very hard to find a bridge accident or derailment. They just simply don't happen.

DAN GUNDERSON: We searched the FRA database for accidents listed under the category bridge failure or misalignment. There were 74 between 1980 and 2014. And while overall rail accidents have been on a downward trend for decades, the number of bridge accidents has increased since the 1980s. Minnesota inspectors are often frustrated by the incomplete inspection they're forced to give railroad bridges and by their inability to get bridges repaired.

Minneapolis bridge inspector Kent Madsen says he's caught between feeling responsible for bridge safety and having no authority over rail bridges.

KENT MADSEN: And the railroad tells us if we don't feel safe to close the road underneath. That's our only option is we can stop traffic from going underneath it. And that's the railroad's thing, is saying, well, we don't care about cars underneath. We just care about the trains going across.

DAN GUNDERSON: Madsen says he often hears from residents and elected officials who are concerned about rail bridge safety because the bridges appear to be deteriorating. Railroad safety attorney and lobbyist Larry Mann says there's not currently much interest in increasing federal oversight of railroad bridges.

LARRY MANN: And really until there's a catastrophe, there's not going to be anything done.

DAN GUNDERSON: California recently started the first state-run program to inspect all rail bridges because state officials felt the federal agency wasn't providing enough oversight. Dan Gundersen, Minnesota Public Radio News, Moorhead.

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