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Oversight Of Railroad Bridges Raises Safety Concerns

A train derailment occurred at a bridge on the Glenview-Northbrook border last Wednesday. The fatal railroad accident has drawn attention to the safety standards and oversight of thousands of bridges in Illinois and across the nation. While the Illinois Department of Transportation is responsible for the condition of most bridges, oversight of railroad bridges is left to the railroad companies, themselves.

The Federal Railroad Administration does not require railroad companies to submit the results of the inspections the companies do on their own bridges. The government website explains that the administration believes it would be counterproductive to force railroad companies to take this step. According to federal officials, the losses that a railroad incurs when a bridge fails are sufficient inducement to maintain those bridges in a safe and working condition. A Federal Railroad Administration spokesperson described the railroads as having a “vested interest” in the condition of the bridges.

The bridge that collapsed had been reinforced as recently as 2011 and was inspected on April 6, 2012 according to a Union Pacific spokesperson. The inspection revealed no defects. The 1970 Federal Railroad Safety Act granted the FRA authority to inspect rail bridges only after an accident has taken place. Officials at the agency are in the process of inspecting the bridge at Shermer Road now. No determination has been made regarding what caused the bridge to fail.

According to an Amtrak official, freight railroads and Amtrak maintain roughly 77,000 railroad bridges all across the country. It is important that the proper framework be in place to ensure that those bridges receive proper care and maintenance.

Source: Chicago Sun-Times, “When it comes to rail-bridge safety, railroads mostly police themselves,” by Tina Sfondeles, 6 July 2012

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