U.S. Senator Charles Schumer launched his push to increase the number of federal railroad bridge safety specialists nationwide today. It’s the latest chapter in what has become a months-long effort to cut down on the dangers of shipping oil.
Schumer revealed that there are currently just seven specialists overseeing audits for the Federal Railroad Administration. Less than 1 percent of the 70,000 to 100,000 privately-owned train bridges nationwide are audited in any given year. It would take 100 years, at that rate, to audit all of the bridges.
Oil trains pass over many of these spans, and Schumer, speaking on a conference call with reporters Thursday, is concerned about their structural soundness. "What does that mean for New York? It means that there's just one inspector assigned to over 3,000 train bridges across New York State. And guess what? That inspector is not only responsible for the 3,000 bridges in New York State, but bridges in 13 other states."
- The link to the full NYSDOT railroad bridge inventory, as of November 2014, can be found by clicking here.
Many of these bridges are owned by companies like CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific and are used to carry freight, including the transport of hazardous material and crude oil. "In upstate New York, there are 2,158 rail bridges that could be at risk if they're not inspected or audited. In the Capital Region, there are 281 privately-owned rail bridges. In Central New York, there are 261. In Western New York, 487 ... 232 in the Rochester Finger Lakes area. 446 in the Southern Tier. 307 in the Hudson Valley, and 144 in the North Country."
The funding level for the rail bridge safety specialist program is currently just over $1 million per year. The New York Democrat announced his push to increase the program’s budget to hire more inspectors, arguing that doubling the federal allocation would enable FRA to add at least seven more inspectors and help cut down on the heavy caseload.
Up in the North Country, where more than 30 trains a week, each hauling about 300,000 gallons or more of crude oil, pass through Clinton County, the Plattsburgh Town Council has passed three resolutions in support of increased regulation of oil transportation by railroad tank car.
The first calls for federal support to address crude-oil transport in New York, the second urges the state to continue its efforts to safeguard residents from the potential dangers, and the third urges the railroads and oil producers to take further actions to protect the public.
Freshman Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik shares Senator Schumer's concern about oil trains, including his mantra to build stronger cars, but she believes in other ways to reduce the reliance on oil trains to move Bakken crude. "When we're talking about transport of energy, this is another reason why supporting the Keystone Pipeline was such a significant vote. It's not only a jobs creator, but it actually is more environmentally friendly, environmentally sound, that these high-speed oil trains going right through this district, right along our beautiful lakes, and in our small communities."
This week, the Green Party's Jill Stein was in Albany observing oil trains, part of an exploratory tour testing the waters for a possible run for president. "These trains need to be banned. This fuel should not be transported, and above all, it should not be transported in massive amounts through dense population centers."
Stein didn't offer an alternative to oil by rail. In 2012, Stein was arrested after she brought supplies to activist treesitters attempting to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.
A copy of Senator Schumer’s letter to the Federal Railroad Administration appears below:
Dear Acting Administrator Feinberg:
I am writing today to express my concern about the estimated 70,000 – 100,000 privately owned railroad bridges across the Country. These bridges, many of which cross major commuter routes, are owned by railroad companies who are responsible for their maintenance and annual inspection. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) plays a vital oversight role in this process, ensuring that the owners of these bridges are investing adequately in their maintenance and following the required load restrictions. However, currently there are too few Bridge Safety Specialists employed by the FRA to properly monitor and audit the entire system.
In 2010, the FRA released a final rule related to Bridge Safety Standards. As part of that rule, railroads were required to do a number of things including maintain an inventory of all of their rail bridges and their load capacity, ensuring bridge engineers meet qualification requirements, and implementing bridge management programs that included annual inspections of all railroad bridges. In order to enforce this requirement FRA currently employs 6 Bridge Safety Specialists and 1 Supervisor who are tasked with auditing the bridge management programs and individual inspection reports across the entire country for all privately owned rail bridges. 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. Current staffing levels allow the Bridge Safety Specialists to audit roughly 1% of the national railroad bridge inventory annually, this is simply unacceptable. Therefore, I urge you to prioritize this type of inspection, and if needed, add additional resources to this program to allow for the hiring of additional Bridge Safety Specialists.
Structural flaws and defects in these bridges could always be catastrophic regardless of the type of freight being transported. However, in New York we have seen a massive increase in the transportation of volatile crude oil by rail which poses an even greater risk should a bridge collapse or fail. Estimates are that there are over 3,000 railroad bridges in New York alone and at current staffing levels the FRA specialist tasked with auditing those bridges also has to cover 13 other states. This lack of oversight leaves massive gaps in our rail safety system and creates an environment where hundreds of unsafe bridges could be in daily use without proper federal oversight.
If you need an additional appropriation to address this issue than I stand ready to work with you to ensure that you have the needed authorization. However, it is my understanding that under the current structure FRA has the budgetary authority and flexibility to add additional Bridge Safety Specialists – I encourage you to make use of this flexibility immediately and get more specialists on the job auditing safety reports across the country.
I appreciate your attention to this issue, should you have further questions please do not hesitate to contact my office.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator