Railroad Bridge Evaluation Program

Potentially significant safety risks are the age and unknown conditions of California’s railroad bridges. Many of these bridges are old steel and timber structures, some over a hundred years old. In addition, many of California’s railroad bridges span large bodies of water, major highways, and/or areas of high population density. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, “The magnitude of the consequence [of bridge failure] is directly related to the significance of the featured bridge.” It is therefore important to make an assessment of the structural integrity of California’s railroad bridges.


Federal law (49 CFR, Part 237) requires track owners to create a bridge management program, perform annual bridge inspections, and calculate load capacities. It also requires railroads to make their bridge management program documents and records available for inspection and reproduction by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The CPUC railroad track inspectors that specialize in bridges will work in close cooperation with FRA bridge inspectors to focus inspection efforts on bridges that have been given a prioritization rating based on the consequence of an accident happening on them. In addition, the CPUC and the FRA have agreed to cooperate to ensure that railroads complete their bridge management programs and make the documents available for inspection by the FRA and the CPUC.

During FY 2013-14, the ROSB railroad safety analytical staff started compiling a list of California’s railroad bridges and researched other states’ approaches to assessing risks associated with railroad bridges. The CPUC’s rail safety analytical staff has created a rail map of California and is gradually plotting the railroad bridges as the bridge inventory becomes more comprehensive.

The Budget Act of 2014 authorized the use of two railroad track inspectors who specialize in bridge inspection. These inspectors are directed to create a Railroad Bridge Oversight Plan that would complement the risk assessment engineer with the expertise of experienced railroad bridge inspectors. These inspectors will evaluate the railroad’s bridge inspections, as well as the bridges themselves, to confirm the implementation and assess the quality of the railroad’s bridge inspection program, especially taking into consideration the ages of bridges and the increased volume of traffic expected from the increase in crude oil transportation by rail.

The CPUC rail safety analytical staff will use the results of the initial inspections to extrapolate inspection plans for the balance of California’s railroad bridge population. The inspectors will identify deficiencies in the bridges, and make recommendations to the railroads to either repair or replace bridges located in the most vulnerable high-consequence areas. Criteria that may affect a ranking of the risk of a bridge include whether the bridge exists in proximity to high-population areas, major waterways, or sensitive habitats. Additional considerations include the frequency of passenger traffic over railroad bridges and the risks posed by bridges that support trains carrying hazardous materials.

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