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Until fairly recently, the FRA's stand on railroad bridge maintenance was that railroads were doing an adequate job and didn't require regulatory oversight.  But beginning around the late 1990's, attitudes were changing and the agency began to add structural engineers and bridge safety specialists to its staff as “observers” who performed safety inspections and could issue emergency orders.  By 2000, the FRA had a written policy in place to determine the adequacy of a railroad's bridge inspection and maintenance programs.  Still, guidelines rather than regulations were the tools chosen to persuade railroads to focus on their bridges.

Historically, Class I railroads excercised significant engineering oversight upon their bridges.  Each railroad maintained their own bridge engineering standards.  Bridges were regularly inspected, a number of new bridges constructed each year to replace aging substandard (usually timber) bridges construction, inspection and maintenance


The “Railway Safety Improvement Act of 2008” or “RSIA” was signed into law in October, 2008. For the first time in history, the FRA became responsible for issuing regulations with teeth, i.e. rules with fines for non-compliance, rather thanjust guidelines, aimed at railroad's management of their bridges.

The FRA released a “Proposed Rule” for Bridge Safety Standards in August, 2009.

The "Final Rule" was released July 15, 2010.  If you don't have a copy or are unable to find it on the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) web site, you may download a copy of the PDF document here:

Bridge Safety Standards; Final Rule.pdf

The FRA released a “Proposed Rule” for Bridge Safety Standards in August, 2009 which was published in the Federal Register as:

Federal Register
Monday, August 17, 2009
Part IV
Department Of Transportation
Federal Railroad Administration
49 CFR Parts 213 and 237.
Bridge Safety Standards; Proposed Rule

This is the best guide I know of to give us an idea of what to expect in the new regulations.  Of course, there will be at least some changes when the final version is released, but if these regulations proceed along a course similar to the Bridge Worker Safety regulations of ten years ago, the changes will be minor.  If you don't have a copy or are unable to find it on the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) web site, you may download a copy of the PDF document here:

Bridge Safety Standards Proposed Rule (E9-19367).pdf

The “Final Rule” was originally scheduled to be out in October of 2009.  In June, 2010, I heard it was in publication, but as of late July it still isn't out.

FRA's Approach, Historically

The leadership of the bridge group within FRA has not changed since Fall Protection and Roadway Worker Protection regulations emerged in the 90s, so the new rules will probably be introduced in a similar manner. The field people I've spoken with seem to agree. This is a good thing because, rather than busting out of the gate with zero tolerance from day one, FRA's past practice was to start light and get tougher over time. For example, their first focus was on training. If a railroad had earnestly begun educating employees about the new regulations, they tended to be lenient regarding an isolated infraction here or there.

Over time, of course, they became more strict, dispensed with the leniency and began issuing fines when they believed it warranted.  Still, the implementing strategy could hardly be faulted as "unfair."

From Protecting RR Workers to Protecting the General Public

Those regulations had to do with the protection of bridge workers. They translated into railroad safety rules and operating practices. Workers had to be trained in the proper use of fall protection gear, methods of on-track safety and the like. This time it's more about protecting the general public from the potential hazards of operating trains over unsafe bridges.  So the FRA will be  looking to see if railroads are inspecting their bridges regularly, are maintaining decent inspection records, and have written procedures for dealing with bridge issues. 

When Fall Protection and Roadway Worker Protection rules were introduced, "training" was a litmus test the FRA could use because, if training was happening, it was a pretty sure bet the concepts would soon be practiced in the field.  For the new RSIA regulations, training isn't as central to the effort.  I doubt it will carry as much weight with the FRA.

For example, it's great if a shortline sends several people to bridge inspection school, but it doesn't guarantee they're conducting regular inspections or that an engineer is reviewing the reports.

So then, what will the FRA be looking for?

First, some ground rules.  I don't represent the FRA, and I surely can't be certain what the final rule will look like or exactly how FRA personnel will enforce it, but my livelihood depends on a healthy rail industry, especially the shortline  segment who need simple, effective AND inexpensive solutions.  Please believe me when I say this is what I would suggest no matter who I worked for or what my influence were to be.  

The next important thing I will emphasize from the start is something I've heard repetitively from FRA people, which is that they're looking for

Engineering Oversight and Consistency.

In fact, the goal for the new regulation, it can be argued, is to ensure that all railroad bridges come under consistent reasonable oversight by an engineer.  But there's also concern about continuity.  When the inspector or engineer overseeing bridges on a railroad changes, the recommended maintenance and repair work usually changes also.   Theoretically, the recommended work shouldn't change, but it's inevitable with the huge variations in experience among bridge engineers and inspectors, that their opinions will differ.  A lot of headaches could be avoided by carefully choosing these individuals, and then sticking with them if at all possible.

The proposed rule is available, as are several helpful papers the FRA has released over the years as this has taken shape.  Of special note are what they refer to as the:

"Essential Elements of Railroad Bridge Management Programs."

As I mentioned above, the FRA has urged railroads to follow guidelines for the safe management of  their bridges for about a decade and have referred to the "Essential Elements" through the years.  The list has nine main topics, each further defined with subtopics.  The most complete, up-to-date document containing a list of the elements I can find is one written in September of 2008 by FRA staff.  It's a simple bare-bones list and nothing more, but unlike other documents I've found, it contains all the elements that are in the Proposed Rule.  Here's a copy you can download if you don't have one or can't find it on the FRA web site:

Essential Elements.pdf

It's a nice, neat list. But there's a lot there. Where do you start?

Based on how things went with the Bridge Worker Safety regulations and the Roadway Worker Protection regulations, here's my suggestion.

Define who is responsible for bridges

If you don't already have someone named as being responsible for bridges, that is an important place to start.  I suggest the conglomerates who have a system bridge engineer or bridge manager also consider a local bridge go-to person on each affiliate. I think this will better satisfy the FRA, but it also makes sense logistically, in case of a bridge problem, for example. My guess is most railroads already have done this.

Now is a good time to get an engineer on board, too.  I mentioned the importance of a good inspector and engineer above.  If possible, settle into a good team as soon as you feel comfortable with the individuals so your bridge management takes on a form of continuity as soon as possible.

Bridge Inspections

The first thing I believe the FRA will get serious about, because it always has been a requirement, it is so essential to maintaining older structures, and shortlines have not had the best record in this area, is good bridge inspection - meaning annual inspection by a qualified inspector.  You can hire an engineer, and that might be a good way to go if inspection has been lax for awhile, but I recommend getting at least a couple of your employees qualified specifically in bridge inspection if you don't have any. The FRA will still require the inspection reports to be reviewed by a qualified railroad bridge engineer, but to have a high price engineer out for the entire inspection every year may not be necessary except in unusual or complex problems. Another benefit of having your own inspector(s) is in the case of a damaged bridge, hit by an over-height truck, for instance. Your inspector can usually get to the bridge, call an engineer, email him or her a few photos and take measurements if necessary usually before an engineer can start traveling to it. An engineer may be required eventually but in many cases rail traffic can at least be resumed. I have cleared many bridges for resumption of rail traffic this way.

If you've ever done a bridge inspection, you appreciate how important a bridge inventory is. The inventory is the basis for what is often referred to as a “Bridge List”  Going by the condensed profile or track chart will do in a pinch, but neither usually has the detail a bridge person needs.  Your next bridge inspection can be the establishment of an accurate inventory if you don't have one.

The FRA is not happy with roads that currently aren't inspecting their bridges and they surely will get much tougher as soon as it becomes law. I doubt there will be any grace period on this. But if the FRA sees you have an accurate inventory and a trained bridge inspector (or are contracting out inspection), they will see you're off to a good start.

Start assembling your "Bridge Safety Policy Manual"

Getting your Bridge Safety Policy Manual started should be your next step, even if there are several issues to work out.

Bridge Safety Policy Manual? What's that? Well, the entire list of “Essential Elements” should show up in this document, along with a brief explanation of how your railroad handles it. The FRA is not requiring you to create more paperwork, but they are looking for you to ensure that several systems are in place.  For your own benefit, you can create a simple manual that provides several uses:

The concept of a Bridge Safety Policy Manual is intended for shortlines.  The Class Is won't need such a document because, when you look at the “Essential Elements” you see systems the Class Is all have, give or take. The FRA wants shortlines and regionals to have those systems, although they seem to understand that things need to be scaled down to fit the particular shortline, regional or conglomerate.

No two Class Is share the same organizational structure for managing their bridges, and it follows that there is no universal “one-size-fits-all” bridge management policy that one shortline will be able to put in a computer, fill in the “enter railroad name here” blanks, and print out an FRA-compliant bridge safety policy. It's just not that simple.

If done properly, however, a few of the Essential Elements can be dealt with entirely in the manual. For example, one of the elements requires a procedure for designing and rating bridges. For most shortlines, all that will be necessary is along the lines of, “Design and rating shall be in accordance with AREMA guidelines.” There is no point in getting much more elaborate for most shortlines on this matter.

I believe the ASLRRA has developed ways to assist member shortlines come into compliance. It's a very worthwhile effort.  The process certainly will vary from railroad to railroad.  Regardless of who takes on the task, if it's done right it will result in a simple procedure for each Essential Element that fits well within your railroad with your people and is ultimately the least expensive way to go for your organization.

The Manual is a Means to an End - NOT itself the goal

The document is the easy part. The FRA will acknowledge you have a manual, but surely the time will come when they start checking to see if you really have in place what your manual says you have.

For example, if your manual has a form to fill out for clearing a high-wide-heavy load, the FRA will (possibly) fill one out and ask, “Now what?” Who checks this? What qualifications do they have? How do they check it? These systems will have to really exist. I think they will give railroads plenty of time to get them functional, but eventually they will look for the proof in the pudding.

Load Rating

Finally, there's the matter of providing a load rating (capacity) for each bridge. My understanding is the FRA will be providing a grace period for this, based on railroad size, or something to the effect. It can take a lesser priority in your to-do list of getting into conformance, but I highly recommend at least having an engineer make an assessment of your bridge documents. If your own staff locates them it should only take an engineer around a day to go through them and categorize their suitability for the kind of rating the FRA is looking for.

At that point the engineer will be able to tell you the approximate amount of work it will take to assign ratings to each bridge. If the former owner maintained a specific rating of each bridge, very little work will be required to bring each into the inventory. On the other hand, if there are several older structures without bridge drawings, rating info or other supporting documentation, the required effort will be much greater and you will probably want to spread the engineering work out over the grace period so that you are not looking at one big last-minute expensive project.