Communities address railroad bridge issues after tragedy
Built of steel and concrete and showing obvious wear, the railroad bridge over Route 45 at the north end of Mundelein see lots of traffic, both trains overhead and cars below. | Rob Dicker ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:35PM
MUNDELEIN -- Local communities have no authority to inspect railroad bridges in their towns, even when those bridges cross over major state highways or local roads.
Pursuant to federal regulations, railroads conduct inspections of all rail bridges under the supervision of the Federal Railroad Administration. But the issue of railroad bridge safety has gotten more attention in recent weeks in light of the tragic train derailment and railroad bridge collapse near the Glenview/Northbrook border over the Fourth of July holiday.
Mundelein has three railroad bridges. Two are located on U.S. Route 45, one north of Illinois Route 176 near the entrance to the Mundelein seminary and one along the south end of Route 45 north of Illinois Route 60. There’s also a railroad bridge over Courtland Street near Fairhaven School.
Mundelein Assistant Village Administrator Mike Flynn said the village does not conduct inspections of railroad bridges and that those inspections are conducted by the railroad in conjunction with the appropriate federal or state agencies.
Vernon Hills Manager Mike Allison said he knows of two railroad bridges in town, but neither cross roadways. One of those bridges goes over Indian Creek and is adjacent to Route 45 and the other one goes over the Seavey Drainage ditch.
Allison said the village does contract for the inspection of roadway bridges in the town for locally maintained roads but has no authority over railroad bridges.
‘Get involved in’
“There are inspections for highway bridges we get involved in but not for railroad bridges. Even the state and federal government rely on the railroads for inspections.”
Local officials say while they don’t conduct inspections, they do try to report issues of potential railroad safety if they become aware of them.
Libertyville Public Works Director John Heinz said the village has received some complaints from motorists about the condition of a railway bridge which runs parallel to Route 137 near Route 45. He said concerns center around concrete spalling, which means that some of the concrete on the bridge has begun flaking away.
“We’ve gotten calls from motorists that drive down the road and observe the condition of the bridge,” he said. “We’ve contacted Metra and advised them of it. We don’t know if it’s dramatic.”
There are also two railroad bridges that cross over the Des Plaines River in the Libertyville area but those are not within the village limits, Heinz said.
Metra is responsible for maintaining bridges along the Milwaukee District North Line, which runs from Chicago to Fox Lake and includes stops in Grayslake, Prairie Crossing/Libertyville, Libertyville, Lake Forest and Deerfield. The Canadian National (CN) railroad is responsible for inspecting rail bridges on Metra’s North Central Service line, which runs from Antioch to Chicago and includes stops in Grayslake, Prairie Crossing/Libertyville, Mundelein, Vernon Hills, Prairie View and Buffalo Grove. The Union Pacific is responsible for maintaining its train lines including the UP North, the UP Northwest and UP West lines.
Pioneer Press has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to several agencies that deal with railroads asking for information such as inspection reports about rail bridges.
Amtrak and Metra has indicated they are working on the requests. Pioneer Press is working with the Federal Railroad information to get information about railroad tracks.
Meg Reile, a spokesperson for Metra, said the agency generally conducts inspections once or twice a year to check the condition of rail bridge structures. Reile noted that there are a variety of different rail bridge structures including bridges over creeks and culverts, over highways and over viaducts.
Reile added that Metra employees also check the condition of the rail a minimum of every three days to make sure there are no obvious problems with the track.
Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for the CN, said their rail bridges are inspected at least once a year and more often if issues are identified. He said all reports are available to the Federal Railroad Administration on request.
“The inspections are conducted by qualified railroad bridges and streets inspectors and are supervised by CN professional engineers,” he said. “All bridges are capable of safely carrying the rail traffic that goes over them.”
However, Waldron declined to provide inspection reports of their bridges to the media.
“We don’t publish our inspection reports,” he said. “They are provided upon request to the FRA.”