Railroad Bridges and Tunnels:

Federal Role in Providing Safety Oversight and Freight Infrastructure Investment Could Be Better Targeted

GAO-07-770: Published: Aug 6, 2007. Publicly Released: Aug 30, 2007.

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Freight railroads account for over 40 percent (by weight) of the nation's freight on a privately owned network that was largely built almost 100 years ago and includes over 76,000 railroad bridges and over 800 tunnels. As requested, GAO provides information on this infrastructure, addressing (1) the information that is available on the condition of railroad bridges and tunnels and on their contribution to railroad congestion, (2) the federal role in overseeing railroad bridge and tunnel safety, (3) the current uses of public funds for railroad infrastructure investments, and (4) criteria and a framework for guiding any future federal role in freight infrastructure investments. GAO reviewed federal bridge safety guidelines and reports, conducted site visits, and interviewed federal, state, railroad, and other officials.

Little information is publicly available on the condition of railroad bridges and tunnels and on their contribution to congestion because the railroads consider this information proprietary and share it with the federal government selectively. Major (Class I) railroads maintain detailed repair and inspection information, while other (Class II and III) railroads vary, from keeping detailed records, to lacking basic condition information. Despite their age, bridges and tunnels are not the main cause of congestion, although some do constrain capacity. Because bridge and tunnel work is costly, railroads typically make other investments to improve mobility first. The federal role in overseeing the safety of railroad bridges and tunnels is limited because the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has determined that most railroads are sufficiently ensuring safe conditions. FRA has issued bridge management guidelines, makes structural observations, and may take enforcement actions to address structural problems. However, FRA bridge specialists use their own, not a systematic, consistent, risk-based, methodology to select smaller railroads for safety surveys and therefore may not target the greatest safety threats. Federal funds are used to meet many different goals, but are not invested under any comprehensive national freight strategy, nor are the public benefits they generate aligned with any such strategy. Some state investments are structured to produce state and local economic and safety benefits, and public-private partnerships have facilitated investments designed to produce public and private benefits. GAO has identified critical questions that can serve as criteria for reexamining the federal role in freight investments--including railroad bridge and tunnel investments--and a framework for implementing that role that includes identifying national goals, clarifying stakeholder roles, and ensuring that revenue sources and funding mechanisms achieve maximum national public benefits. The Department of Transportation's draft Framework for a National Freight Policy takes a step forward, but more is needed to guide the implementation of a federal role in freight transportation investments.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help better focus limited federal resources, the Secretary of Transportation should ensure that its draft Framework for a National Freight Policy establishes and clearly defines roles for all public and private stakeholders.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Department of Transportation (DOT) officials have stated that DOT has worked to define its role in freight policy to the extent it is enabled by statute, but further Congressional direction is necessary to fully implement this recommendation. While the Department may propose legislation or work with Congress on the next surface transportation reauthorization bill to address this recommendation, DOT officials have stated that DOT has moved past its proposed framework for a national freight policy as a document that guides its freight policy and that they have no intention of clearly defining roles for all public and private stakeholders in the freight transportation system. Given these statements and that DOT has not yet proposed and Congress has not yet acted on any legislation to implement this recommendation, we are closing it as not implemented. However, we may revisit this status if any future action is taken that would address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help better focus limited federal resources, the Secretary of Transportation should ensure that its draft Framework for a National Freight Policy includes clear national goals for federal involvement in freight-related infrastructure investments across all modes, including freight railroad investments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Department of Transportation (DOT) officials have stated that DOT has worked to define its role in freight policy to the extent it is enabled by statute, but further Congressional direction is necessary to fully implement this recommendation. While the Department may propose legislation or work with Congress on the next surface transportation reauthorization bill to address this recommendation, DOT officials have stated that DOT has moved past its proposed framework for a national freight policy as a document that guides its freight policy. As DOT has not yet proposed and Congress has not initiated any legislation to implement this recommendation, we are closing it as not implemented. However, we may revisit this status if any future action is taken that would address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance the effectiveness of its bridge and tunnel safety oversight function, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration to devise a systematic, consistent, risk-based methodology for selecting railroads for its bridge safety surveys to ensure that it includes railroads that are at higher risk of not following the FRA's bridge safety guidelines and of having bridge and tunnel safety issues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) took several actions. First, it issued a notice in the June 18, 2008 Federal Register (citing our recommendation) seeking approval to collect information from all U.S. railroads that will be used to implement the FRA's revised methodology and factors for selecting railroads for FHWA's bridge surveys and evaluations. The revised methodology uses new factors for prioritizing and selecting railroads based on relative importance and risk. These factors include length of a railroad in miles; the number, types, and total length of the railroad's bridges; level of traffic; presence of hazardous material traffic; operation of passenger trains; and railroad's record of train accidents. In addition, to strengthen the railroad bridge safety program, the Railroad Safety Action Committee--a joint FRA/railroad industry group--has recommended that the Administrator of the FRA add certain essential elements to FRA's guidelines for railroad bridge safety including, among other things, maintaining a detailed bridge inventory, keeping permanent records of bridge design and repairs, and documenting bridge inspection procedures. As of September 2008, FRA's Office of Safety is preparing a notice to put in the Code of Federal Regulations to implement the committee's recommendation. The FRA also purchased a copy of the American Railroad Engineering and Maintenance Association's new Bridge Management Manual for every regional and short line railroad in the United States. As a result of these actions, the FRA will be able to better identify and help those railroads that are most at risk for railroad bridge safety problems.

    Recommendation: To help better focus limited federal resources, the Secretary of Transportation should ensure that its draft Framework for a National Freight Policy identifies funding mechanisms for federal freight-related infrastructure investments, including freight railroad investments, which provide the highest return in national public benefits for limited federal expenditures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Department of Transportation (DOT) officials have stated that DOT has worked to define its role in freight policy to the extent it is enabled by statute, but further Congressional direction is necessary to fully implement this recommendation. While DOT may propose legislation or work with Congress on the next surface transportation reauthorization bill to address this recommendation, DOT officials have stated that DOT has moved past its proposed framework for a national freight policy as a document that guides its freight policy. As DOT has not yet proposed and Congress has not initiated any legislation to implement this recommendation, we are closing it as not implemented. However, we may revisit this status if any future action is taken that would address this recommendation.

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