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Feds dispatch bridge inspector to check St. Helens rail crossing

No cause for concern identified, despite public worries


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The rail bridge over Milton Creek in St. Helens, as seen from the side of Milton Way. An unused concrete foundation that used to anchor an auxiliary bridge support can be seen underneath the bridge's midpoint. Spokesmen for Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns the railroad, and the Federal Railroad Administration said the center support is not needed for bridge safety and that recent inspections of the structure indicated no problems, but a small group of Columbia County residents led by Deer Island ex-ironworker Jamie Maygra say they believe the bridge is unsafe.A bridge on the Portland and Western Railroad through St. Helens that has some area residents worried is structurally sound, federal and railroad officials confirmed this week.

Michael England, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C., said Monday, Jan. 13, that in response to an inquiry from the Spotlight about the safety of the rail bridge over Milton Creek, the regulatory agency directed a bridge inspector to examine the 115-year-old structure this week.

“Oftentimes, we’ll get the occasional call about a railroad bridge,” England said. Typically, the inspection finds no cause for concern, he said: “It might not be aesthetically pleasing ... but structurally, it’s completely fine. That’s usually what ends up happening.”

The bridge was inspected Tuesday, England said on Wednesday, and was found to be in fine shape.

“No conditions were found that would cause concern ... for continued train operations,” said England.

The federal action came after the Spotlight relayed concerns expressed by several readers, including Jamie Maygra of Deer Island, about the structural integrity of the bridge to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Maygra, who is a retired ironworker, has said he is concerned because the bridge is missing a center support that used to be in place underneath it.

“Right in the center of Milton Creek, you’ll find a concrete footing that still has the anchor bolts in it,” Maygra said Wednesday morning at a Columbia County Board of County Commissioners meeting. He said the center support would have reduced “metal fatigue” from heavy trains passing over the bridge.

Maygra said he was aware of the inspection and spoke with the inspectors, but his concerns about the bridge were not allayed. He said he was especially concerned that the inspectors could not tell him when the bridge was built — the year 1899, according to Mike Williams, a spokesman for Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns the P&W short line.

Like England, Williams defended the bridge’s safety. He responded to a Spotlight query about the bridge last Thursday, Jan. 9, in an email asserting that another recent inspection of the bridge also found it to be in working condition.

“The one you’re asking about was thoroughly inspected in late 2013 and is safe; no issues,” wrote Williams. “All bridges have regular, ongoing maintenance schedules, and this one is scheduled to receive new railroad ties in 2014.”

Railroads, including the P&W, are supposed to perform regular inspections of bridges along their lines. Federal inspectors will also conduct bridge checks at random intervals, England explained.

A 10 mph restriction on train traffic is currently in place for the bridge, but England said that after new railroad ties are installed this year, the speed limit may be increased to 25 mph.

Williams acknowledged that the railroad receives “periodic calls” about the bridge’s safety. He said the missing center support was installed for an unusually heavy one-time cargo sometime before the P&W was formed in 1995 and is no longer needed.

“It’s not an issue,” Williams wrote in his email. “In fact, the bridge was designed in the era of much heavier, steam-powered locomotives that had very large impact loads compared to today’s equipment.”

England confirmed the support was in place at one point, but he said it was only a “temporary” addition to the structure.

“It’s not necessary now, considering what the bridge is needed for today,” said England. He said he does not know when the center support was installed or removed.

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Jamie MaygraMaygra and others at the commissioners’ meeting said they believe the bridge could fail without improvements.

“Personally, I think that this bridge probably is in [what] I would call poor condition,” Maygra said, adding, “I think this is an unsafe bridge and it should be repaired as soon as possible. In fact, personally, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t let any rail traffic go over that until that bridge was fixed — anything carrying any kind of hazardous material or oil.”

“I think it’s negligent on P&W’s part to not keep those bridges in repair,” said Tammy Maygra, Jamie’s wife. “And if anybody stops and looks at that bridge, you can see the scaling on it.”

Williams cautioned against attempts to diagnose a bridge’s safety just by looking at it.

“It is important to understand that the cosmetic appearance of railroad bridges has nothing to do with determining their strength and suitability for the traffic they carry; only trained engineers can make those assessments,” wrote Williams.