Are double stack trains safe enough to go through Pittsburgh? 11 Investigates

PITTSBURGH — A local environmental group is raising concerns about a plan to bring double stack trains through downtown Pittsburgh. The group, Railroad Protection Pollution Pittsburgh or RP3, is worried that the railroad infrastructure won’t be able to handle the increased rail traffic.

RP3 is citing a 2015 report on railroad bridges that highlights the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge, which spans the Allegheny River, and the 2018 derailment of a double stack train at Station Square.

The derailment at Station Square was blamed on a defective rail that was missed during an inspection three weeks earlier. No one was injured in the derailment, but it caused massive damage to rail cars and the tracks.

Built in the early 1900s, the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge connects the North Side to downtown. Right now, single cars travel across the bridge; but to increase capacity and efficiency, Norfolk Southern wants to bring double stack cars across this bridge and through the city.

In order to do that, a handful of vehicle bridges in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities need to be raised to allow the double stack cars to pass under them. RP3 has voiced opposition to this plan for years. Now, the group has concerns about the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge and other railroad bridges in the Pittsburgh area.

“We have amassed many hundreds of photographs, that include issues with not only the Fort Wayne Bridge but there are other rail bridges that show bolts missing, that show cross ties that are completely corroded through and which show rebar in the buttresses. We all ought to be afraid. There’s too much at stake. We have 173,000 people living in the blast zone and all of Pittsburgh’s most critical infrastructure, not only the three stadiums but our museums, our power grids, and our drinking water,” said Glenn Olcerst of RP3, citing the 2015 report by Waterkeeper Alliance.

The report was conducted not by engineers, but citizen inspectors, who visually evaluated 250 railroad bridges across the country and found issues with 114, including the Fort Wayne Bridge. The report indicated that the Fort Wayne Bridge had, “crumbling and cracked concrete with exposed rebar. The main steel support has extensive rust, pitting and holes throughout the underside of the bridge.”

Matt Krogh helped to write the report. He called it very troubling, and said they also found other issues with oversight.

“There’s a real gap in oversight. It starts really at the top and it has been for years, and without an actually competent and interested Federal Railroad Administration that is not working hand in glove with the Association of American Railroads, we’re not going to have real regulatory oversight and mostly just gets left to the railroads,” Krogh said.

But Norfolk Southern said the Fort Wayne Bridge is perfectly safe and inspected twice a year, most recently in August.

"Norfolk Southern is committed to the safety and integrity of all of our infrastructure, bridges included. We maintain a rigorous inspection calendar on all our bridges to make sure we meet and exceed federal regulations. It is important to note that often what members of the public may see as deficiencies are merely cosmetic and do not threaten the integrity of the bridge.

Regarding the Fort Wayne Bridge, it is routinely inspected twice a year, and additionally as circumstances warrant. It has completed and satisfied its two inspections for 2020 and we are confident in its security. In addition to inspection, we perform regular maintenance and upkeep. For example, last year we replaced 1,500 rail ties across the bridge, along with other component replacements. A lot of times to the non-railroad eye there can be some cosmetic blunder issues in the issues whether it’s rusting, or cracks in foundation or things like that and obviously that is a concern, but that’s taken into account and we do these inspections. There’s a difference when I’m talking structural integrity versus chipping and peeling paint or rust," said Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern.

The report also highlighted what it called weak federal oversight and raised concerns that the railroads themselves actually determine safe load limits, inspection and maintenance schedules, and even engineering standards.

But the Association of American railroads defended the oversight process, and the safety of the railroad bridges.

“Railroad bridges have a proven track record and remain among that nation’s safest infrastructure segments. Thanks to rigorous inspection these workhorses of the rail network continue to safely and reliably carry heavy traffic even at more than a century old in some cases. Thousands of qualified railroad bridge inspectors work tirelessly to monitor and assess the health of our nation’s 90,000 railroad bridges. In recent years, railroads have also deployed modern solutions, such as drones and continuous rail inspection technology, that have enhanced both the frequency and accuracy of infrastructure inspections. As required by federal regulations, railroads are required to document all railroad inspections for FRA officials to independently review. For the rail industry there is no higher priority than safety. If either an inspector (track or bridge) or train crew raises concerns about the safety of a bridge, it is immediately taken out of service or placed under operating restrictions depending on the nature of the potential issue until a qualified bridge engineer can examine the structure and determine its condition,” said Jessica Kahanek, director of media relations.

Norfolk Southern also defended the oversight process.

"Our inspections are reviewed by the Federal Railroad Administration, so we do have a regulatory body that is backing up what we are saying is not just necessarily our word. The bridge would not be operational if it was not safe, " said DeGraff.

Still, RP3 is demanding more independent oversight in Pittsburgh before double stack trains can move through the city.

“What we’re going to have coming through the city is not only volatile oil trains but liquid natural gas under pressure and combined all of these concerns call for a special oversight inspection of Norfolk Southern operations and rail bridges through the city,” Olcerst said.

Target 11 has also learned that members of Pittsburgh City Council are also weighing in on this. They plan to send a letter to the state Public Utility Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration urging them to provide more oversight of Norfolk Southern’s operation in the Pittsburgh region.