Detailed new photos show state of aging BNSF Bridge in South Surrey as potential recipe for disaster.

In recent weeks, the state of an aging railroad bridge that spans the Little Campbell River in South Surrey – owned and maintained by the U.S. based BNSF Railway – momentarily attracted the attention of the media after the horrific tragedy of Lac-Mégantic.

However, residents in the area have been concerned over the bridge for years, despite the fact BNSF claims the bridge is regularly inspected and completely safe to transport cargo. This line regularly carries hazardous cargo, including  anhydrous ammonia and chlorine,and travels through heavily populated residential and suburban areas. It would be an environmental and social disaster for any of those items to be released in a derailment with breached containers.

It also carries daily Amtrak passenger trains.

Recently, I met with Bill Brehl, President of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference – Maintenance of Way Division and a member of  Transport Canada’s Advisory Council on Rail Safety (ACRS), and passed on the video and recent media coverage to him for review and his opinion.

The result was a return trip to BC for Bill and he felt concerned enough looking at the video and the coverage, that he took a look at the bridge personally.

The resulting photos tell a story that could potentially be a recipe for disaster. Numerous defects including holes corroded right through the web, support braces cracked right through or rotted fully, bridge seat bolts dissolved to nothing and no Jordan rail on the bridge at all. Jordan rails are the smaller rails that lie in between the large main rails on the track. They are essentially a safety feature – in the event a train car comes off the rails,the smaller rails inside the main track should keep the car from falling off of the bridge.

It’s in the public’s interest to point out that older structures that look to be in horrific shape, are often not. While a coating of rust might make a bridge look decrepit and faulty, most often than not, it doesn’t have any bearing or impact on the structural integrity of the bridge.

In this case however, the bridge in South Surrey is clearly in a condition to be replaced.

While BNSF  reps have stated the bridge is slated for replacement pending permits and permissions from local first Nations, the questions need to be asked about why this bridge has been left in this condition in the first place – and why no repairs have been done to date on the innumerable defects.

It brings to mind the collapse of the bridge in Calgary earlier this year. That bridge was deemed safe as well by CP Rail inspectors prior to the collapse, leading Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi to question the inspections of CP. While it is understandable conditions underwater can change quickly with a change in current and flow of a river, the problems highlighted in these photos are not underwater and are clearly and easily seen and accessed.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway ( BNSF) is owned by one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett, via the company Berkshire Hathaway. While bridges are without a doubt the most expensive component of a rail line, they are also a crucial component and one that must be maintained adequately for obvious reasons.

Public safety, and safety of rail workers, must not be compromised. De-regulation at the hands of the Canadian government in the late 90’s effectively stripped rail transport safety from government oversight and gently placed it into the hands of private corporations.

Government regulations are created for a reason.They standardize an acceptable set of rules and guidelines to safeguard the public, the environment and workers. Not just for the rail industry, but in trucking, airline travel, food and drug production, to name just a few.

When governments cave into external pressures and budgetary concerns – real or contrived – and begin de-regulating industries that must maintain a high standard of safety oversight, it becomes a recipe for disaster.

Ironically, lobbyist records show that BNSF has been actively lobbying the B.C. provincial government since 2011, in one case, to “Inform government of BNSF procedures for transporting products in an environmentally responsible manner”.

bnsflobbying

And where is new transportation minister Todd Stone on the state of this bridge? And perhaps our new premier, Christy Clark? Long standing public servant Dan Doyle?

Is the condition of this bridge indicative of transporting products in an environmentally responsible manner? In my opinion, no. And the province needs to take a hard look at what their values are when it comes to ensuring the safety of the public in our province.

Considering rail transport is largely under federal jurisdiction, it also brings into question the role provinces and municipalities play in ensuring rail infrastructure routed through their communities are meeting stringent safety standards – an issue Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi  raised following the collapse of the Bonnybrook rail bridge.

“He said there is frustration among mayors and cities about a lack of municipal rights to inspect bridges owned by railway companies.

The rail bridge in Bonnybrook dropped more than 0.6 metres in 90 minutes following a 'structural failure,' according to the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.The rail bridge in Bonnybrook dropped more than 0.6 metres in 90 minutes following a ‘structural failure,’ according to the Calgary Emergency Management Agency. (City of Calgary )

“How is it that we don’t have regulatory powers over this, but it’s my guys risking their lives over this?” Nenshi said.

As tragic as Lac-Mégantic is,and will remain to be in Canadian history, now is the time to push beyond the pain and horror.

We must not only look at the core issues behind this accident, but what must be done immediately, to prevent such an accident from occurring again, in any other community – including South Surrey and White Rock. The safety of the public, the workers and the environment cannot be compromised. This bridge must be fixed or replaced now.

All levels of government across Canada must put partisan politics aside immediately and bring rail safety regulation back under government oversight.

To do anything less, would be far more tragic than Lac-Mégantic.

46 thoughts on “Detailed new photos show state of aging BNSF Bridge in South Surrey as potential recipe for disaster.

  1. marc erickson

    I searched for Mr. Buffett’s email address and got berkshire@berkshirehathaway.com. I sent him a simple letter saying that a company that he has a significant ownership position in is at risk. Mr. Buffett is a very rational investor – if some others wrote him about the risks involved in this bridge’s failure – I think that it would be replaced soon.

    Like

    1. Laila

      I agree- I think Buffet would be appalled to see this bridge and it’s condition. After all he did say: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently.”
      I think he would make sure things are done differently if he saw and read all of this. Buffett likes to take chances, but rational chances, not gambles.

      Like

  2. jim

    You mentioned how a bridge is the most expensive part of a rail system, to side track little here, what do you think of translinks insistance on building it’s entire rail transit system on a bridge (or in a tunnel)? Despite the fact surrey wants at grade light rail?

    I agree with Marc somewhat, I don’t know a lot of Mr Buffet but what I have seen, I like him more then most billionaires.

    Like

    1. Arguing against grade-separated rail transit systems on the basis solely that they are expensive is a straw-man argument.

      Look at the Canada Line; it was built with full grade separation, and became North America’s most successful rail transit project of the late 2000s. Grade separation enabled it to meet a travel time requirement of 25 minutes between Richmond and downtown Vancouver, and according to a survey the riders’ most favourite aspect is the trip speed.

      At the same time, at-grade LRT lines all over North America have failed to eclipse ridership goals.

      Like

      1. JC Van

        Are you kidding? The Canada Line “became North America’s most successful rail transit project of the late 2000’s” And who bestowed this title to this farce?

        It’s a 2 car train subway, which is laughable. The underground stations are not expandable for larger car trains without ripping up the Cambie Street again.It destroyed businesses along the Cambie corridor! Successful?

        The guideway into Richmond is single track, no room for expansion. Come on stop kidding yourself!

        Have you even noticed the amount of single occupancy cars operating in Vancouver during the rush periods? Have you noticed that the transit ridership out of South Delta decreased after the Canada Line? Successful?

        Like

  3. Laila

    I think light rail makes more sense for many areas in Metro Van. It is far less costly than overhead systems overall. But lets not detract from this issue, which is one of public safety and government failure. 😉

    Like

  4. renate neumann

    who is responsible for replacing this bridge ? if it is the province of bc then i wonder why there is not more outrage at how money is squandered by the liberal government. the incessant selfpromoting government ads for the last two years and the 11 000 000 million on a foreign award show . all that money would have helped towards nessessary infrostructure.

    Like

    1. Laila

      Renate, this is under federal jurisdiction and BNSF the company who owns the line, is responsible for replacement.

      However,provincial and local municipalities have tremendous ability to pressure the feds when they want to…. but they have to want to first. The mayor of White Rock has been on this issue recently, but haven’t heard anything from Dianne Watts – this bridge is in South Surrey,not White Rock municipal boundaries.

      Like

        1. Laila

          And I return that to you, my friend. As I have always said, this site is a group effort. My writing means nothing if no one reads, shares and learns. And you are a big part of that Renate! 😉

          Like

  5. North Vans Grumps

    As a comparison Laila, to another nearby rail line failing conditions, your readers may be interested in hearing of the inspections that have just been completed, and repairs started for the E&N Railway on Vancouver Island.

    Three Reports:
    Bridges Observed Under Load,
    Evaluation Report;
    Bridge Inventory

    Page 6
    As a supplement to the field inspections, several bridges were observed under load. The primary intent of the load testing was to identify any significant bridge movements (sway, settlement, etc.) and to identify how critical members were behaving. The load observation process was led by Benesch and AE; members of SVI’s field staff assisted in the observations. The on-site team was spread throughout various locations on or around the bridge structures in an attempt to maximize the number of areas observed. It should be noted that only a sampling of each structure was seen under load; the loading was typically a short duration passing locomotive(s). For best results, the bridges should be observed under a full train of cars (at timetable speeds) providing sustained loading.

    On 10/12/2011, the inspection team of Michael O’Connor (Benesch) and Matthew Becker (Benesch), assisted by Bryon Reed (SVI), observed Bridge 39.3 under the load of 1-GP9 locomotive and 8 empty freight cars at various speeds in both directions.

    On 11/03/2011, the inspection team of Scott Wojteczko (Benesch) and Dale Harrison (AE), assisted by Bryon Reed, Al Kutaj, and Don McGregor (SVI), observed Bridges 14.0, 37.6, 37.8, 46.6 and 47.9 under the load of 2-GP9 locomotives at various speeds in both directions.

    One: http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/pubdocs/bcdocs2013_2/518665/10176_inspection_report_phase_1_20120215.pdf
    Two: http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/pubdocs/bcdocs2013_2/518666/rpt_mot_e_n_eval_ph2_20120215_nc.pdf
    Three: http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/pubdocs/bcdocs2013_2/518667/10176_inspection_report_phase_3_20120215.pdf

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    1. Laila

      Those are great links NVG! Just had time to review all of them and in the first report readers will find many examples to the Jordan rails I mentioned above that are absent on the BNSF bridge.

      It would be interesting to see a BNSF inspection report as opposed to this report – I’m curious to see what kind of standard they meet.

      Like

      1. North Vans Grumps

        Transport Canada
        http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/railsafety/guideline-724.htm
        Guideline for Bridge Safety Management

        Bridge Safety Management Program (BSMP)
        A bridge should be inspected more frequently when a Railway Bridge Engineer determines that such inspection frequency is necessary considering the conditions noted on prior inspections, the type and configuration of the bridge, and the weight and frequency of traffic carried on the bridge.

        Like

        1. Laila

          So the question is, when did they note the above conditions I’ve mentioned above…. and did that result in a greater number of inspections? And why was the bridge not fixed ???

          Some of these issues have been clearly left untouched for years- completely unacceptable.

          24Hrs has this issue on the front page this morning. My colleague Jeremy Nuttall did a great job. In particular because the BC government told him it has nothing to do with them….. That’s your government in action…. or inaction. They just don’t care.

          http://vancouver.24hrs.ca/2013/08/05/photos-highlight-extent-of-white-rock-bridge-rot

          and here is the E-edition, where you can see todays issue immediately today, for future references you will need to click on the August 6th date to see the same edition http://eedition.vancouver.24hrs.ca/epaper/viewer.aspx

          Like

          1. North Vans Grumps

            If the Bridge were to collapse,without loss of “life”.. while carrying petroleum or other caustic products, would Christy Clark’s Minister of Environment continue to sit idly by while the river dies, the ocean is … “polluted…” or will he/she (difficult to keep track…of CC) take affirmative action NOW, and lay down provincial the law to BNSF?

            Loss of life via Amtrak: one train a day is capable of carrying 220 passengers travels between Seattle and Vancouver

            The BC Liberal Government, in 2008, spent $4.5 million upgrading rail infrastructure specifically to accommodate a second Seattle-Vancouver run for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Federal Border Service killed the idea….at the border because of a $1,500 fee… but OUR money had already been used by BNSF to upgrade THEIR infrastructure.

            RAILWAY INFRASTRUCTURE AGREEMENT REACHED or was it, and if not, why didn’t Minister Kevin Falcon state so, or did he keep quiet because spending money helped the BC Liberals bottom line on popularity….. http://www2.news.gov.bc.ca/news_releases_2005-2009/2007TRAN0007-000200.htm
            “BNSF is pleased to work with the Province, Washington Department of Transportation, and Amtrak, to provide emissions friendly passenger capacity to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest,” said Pete Rickershauser, vice-president of network development, BNSF Railway.

            http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2009/07/03/bc-amtrak-seattle-to-vancouver.html

            Where’s the Auditor General? On which infrastructure was the money used? Where’s the proof? Where’s the short list of the structures? Was the Campbell River Bridge one of them that received funding, and if so what was done?

            Like

            1. Laila

              That release specifically states it was used for a passing track NVG, which would allow for unimpeded movement for the passenger trains along that line, I actually know exactly where this is, I am down in the area often. So, the money that was spent went specifically where it states it was destined to go… However…

              The question is, if the provincial government is interested enough to have made the efforts to make this happen, in the name of tourism etc and bringing $$ into the province via those rail passengers.. why would they think the condition of the line has nothing to do with them?

              Who in their right mind would spend money on a side track to allow passenger trains to fly along that track, over a bridge that from what I am told, should have it’s speed rating lowered from the current 40mph to 10mph for crossing?

              From that 24Hrs article today, this was the response of the Ministry of Transportation when contacted by Jeremy Nuttall, the reporter:

              ” A B.C. Ministry of Transportation spokesperson said the bridge has “nothing to do” with the ministry and indicated it had no plans to pressure Ottawa into addressing the concerns.”

              So our government is willing to partner with BNSF and Amtrak to increase the number of trains coming up here, and going back…. but not willing to ensure the safety of those passengers,or the environment,or the residents who line in the ridings in the area with Liberal MLA’s.

              Like

            2. North Vans Grumps

              At the Provincial Level and Railway companies:

              “So our government is willing to partner with BNSF and Amtrak to increase the number of trains coming up here, and going back…. but not willing to ensure the safety of those passengers,or the environment,or the residents who line in the ridings in the area with Liberal MLA’s.”

              At the Federal Level and Railway companies:
              Different government with proven results:

              Lac-Mégantic

              Like

            3. Peter

              There was no double tracking in White Rock. What happened was BNSF replaced the existing rail and welded the seams. That was done a few years ago. This year, the CP line from Colebrook junction to KG Hwy was double tracked to allow a significant increase in intermodal traffic. The line west of there shrinks to a single line for all traffic as it curves around the golf course. Amtrak heads to the Patullo Bridge along with some other freight. All other traffic, including coal and intermodal continues to Roberts Bank.
              BTW, the Talgo passenger train looks like fun and is very inexpensive. Especially from Bellingham south.

              Like

  6. Evil Eye

    The bridge in question is located in a very corrosive area, right at sea level, by the sea. The salt spray by winter storms literally dissolve the bridge before one’s eyes. I’m afraid BNSF Engineers are basing the maintenance schedule on bridges, that are not so close to the corrosive sea air.

    Like

    1. Laila

      Perhaps-I don’t know what the inspections would cover and what the standards are.I would absolutely agree about proximity to sea and salt air. It doesn’t take long for anything left outside to get a coating of rust quickly when you live next to the ocean – it’s extremely corrosive. Leave something there for 60+ years and there is sure to be an impact.

      Here is the video that I posted here July 11th. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ms7o15wUh2g

      Like

  7. George

    I’m very happy you kept on this, instead of letting it fade away after the press were done with it.

    During the election we tried to get Adrian Dix out here to look at this,but we couldn’t get him to come out here. It just wasn’t an issue for them I guess since I think this is Gordie Hoggs riding, but not sure.Either way it’s liberals down here.I also know Dave Chesney sent this to the White Rock mayor and council over a year ago and as far as I know they didn’t even respond to him.

    I hope Bill Brehl gets action on this sooner than later.

    Like

    1. Laila

      Once a story is over, it’s over in the press… until something new comes along.

      This is definitely new, and because it’s a summer long weekend- the most popular of summer usually- there is lower traffic. It’s picking up today and tomorrow when everyone is back to work, just wait.

      Bill gets things done. Period.

      Like

  8. nonconfidencevote

    Your dogged refusal to let this story die is commendable. I am amazed at the “hand washing” that has been going on. The municipalities point at the province. the province points at the feds. The feds wash their hands and point back at the owner operators.
    Quite the merry go round.
    Now that the bridge has been publically exposed as a disaster waiting to happen.
    One wonders who the Courts will ultimately find financially liable when this train trestle collapses and people are killed or injured…….

    Like

    1. Laila

      Yes you are right about the hand-washing. There are quite a few politician who have been aware of the state of this bridge for a very long time, who are backtracking madly now. Sad that things can’t just get done.

      I can’t say, no one can say that this bridge is about to collapse or even would collapse… yet. But I can say that it’s unacceptable for the bridge to have reached this condition, and unacceptable that it’s taken so much effort by a few to get things done.

      There are some serious questions and issues surrounding the defects in just these photos that need to be addressed and answered, with more than just some talking head spin by a smooth spokesperson whose job it is to make you go away and save the companies reputation.

      Like

  9. The company will fold, the Feds will do nothing and many people will die. Christy Clark will show up in her hardhat and pearls for the photo op with Harper, after the air has cleared and we bury our dead.

    Like

  10. islandcynic

    Perhaps inspectors need to put their personal property on the line for those inspections that they pass. If a failure results then they lose their home and all other assets. That seems to be the only way I can see that we can get any sort of accurate assessments done. Electing right wing governments will only get us the rubber stamping on these reports and more safety deregulations.

    Close the dame bridge until it is resolved!

    Like

    1. Laila

      Believe it or not, Harper actually gave back some independent policing powers to Transport Canada, it was the Liberal government of the late 90’s that deregulated much of it.

      The point is we need full oversight and policing back in Transport Canada’s hands.

      Like

  11. G. Barry Stewart

    Not all photos are clear in what they are showing — but the hand through the hole is a knock-out!

    Is this bridge also used by the AmTrak passenger train?

    Like

  12. Laila

    BNSF knows exactly what these photos are showing.

    And yes this bridge is also used by the Amtrak Passenger train that travels back and forth from Vancouver to Seattle,
    However, since BNSF states this bridge is completely safe, there shouldn’t be a problem…. right?

    Like

  13. Laila

    I’m not aware if Amtrak has seen these photos or not George. But yes, BNSF has stated the bridge is completely safe. I don’t agree as do many others. These repairs should have been done years ago, regardless of whether or not it’s slated for replacement.
    In my opinion, heads should roll on this one. Choosing not to do the needed repairs in the past and up to this day, has left the company completely wide open to culpability and liability if anything happened.
    I know if I was in charge of this company,I’d be going down the list of who had a hand in making those decisions one by one to find out how this was left like this.

    Ironically, BNSF recently hosted a hazardous materials training to emergency responders and workers at their Vancouver terminal….http://www.columbian.com/news/2013/jul/30/bnsf-training-stresses-safety-emergency-responders/

    Like

  14. judi sommer

    Good to see this picked up today in 24 Hours: especially scary was the closeup of a hand coming through a rusted out support structure, Given the bridge is to be replaced in the near future (whatever that means!) the company seems to be in no hurry to repair it. Adrian D was trying to press the Province to put on some pressure with the Feds and was told they wouldn’t be doing so.I wonder if the union could refuse to accept unsafe work? It seems it will be up to them and the public to keep up the pressure.Has anyone seen if Global has picked up on this ? BCTV? Amtrak surely has a vested interest in the safety of the bridge or do they use another line?

    Like

    1. Laila

      That photo of the hand is from above Judi.

      There is a lot more to this story Judi and it will all come out soon. I have a followup coming on this hopefully before the end of the week.

      Like

      1. judi sommer

        Hi,
        I first saw the picture on your site and was glad 24 Hours chose to run with it.Keep their feet to the fire! I shudder to think of what could happen if the coal trains from the USA use that crossing.One of the trains in Oregon hauling that fuel seemed to be nearly a mile long.How much more stress can the structure take? Look forward to your follow-up piece as well!

        Like

    2. judi sommer

      Aargh! It would help if I read all the comments.One of my questions was answered.I’ll bet Amtrak wouldn’t want this as part of their promotional materials!

      Like

        1. judi sommer

          Re: peeling back laters to get at the truth,as one of your fellow blogger,Alex T. would say “total agreement!”
          If you have contacts with the Semiahmoo folk, it would be interesting to hear their perspective.

          Like

  15. I emailed Warren Buffet about this and just got this reply:
    Marc,
    I see that you have e-mailed Mr Buffet about the condition of the BNSF structure at White Rock. The bridge is inspected regularly, is safe however, we have plans to replace it with a new steel structure once an agreement is reached with First Nations. We have been in contact with Transport Canada on pertaining to this matter.

    Pls call me is you would like to discuss further.

    Gus Melonas
    Public Affairs BNSF Railway
    Seattle, Wa
    (206) 625-6220
    Gus.Melonas@bnsf.com

    Like

  16. nonconfidencevote

    Why? On God’s green earth do various levels of Govt/business have to wait for “First Nations approval”………. to repair a rail crossing that is an obvious danger to the public?
    One wonders how long and loud First Nations leaders will be squawking if a train derails and pollutes their land………….

    Like

    1. Laila

      I agree, completely.

      I understand fully, the process,issues and time involved with First Nations ‘consultation’ processes.

      However… I also understand that any First Nations involved in such process can simply circumvent the process by saying yes when there is a public safety issue involved… that includes the safety of their own traditional and treaty lands, and the people who reside on them.

      BNSF has clearly painted a picture that Semiahmoo First Nations are holding this up, regardless of whether or not those exact words have been used in press quotes.

      That may or may not be accurate.. but it does not, in any manner, take away from the fact that these repairs should have been done years ago, in many cases, a decade ago,factoring in the corrosion rate of materials when exposed to marine conditions without maintenance.

      Regardless of what the Semiahmoo First Nations feel now, why the hell was the bridge allowed to deteriorate to the condition it is in now? Why were the repairs not done in years past?

      Like

  17. Abraham Watkins

    Western Mechanical has repeated the feat in Quebec and at several other CN locations, including the rail bridge crossing the Pichogen River in Oba, northwest of Timmins, Ont. and a series of shorter bridges crossing the Kootenay River in Wasa, B.C.

    Like

  18. JC Van

    This is all under the sorry jurisdiction of Transport Canada, Rail Safety Division. TC’s RSD has been well aware of the condition of this bridge since 2006! There were markings from an inspection on the bridge at that time and the video and photos you’ve shown were evident at that time. Problem is we have handed over public oversight to the railway companies and those responsible for Rail Safety at Transport Canada are former members of CN and CP! The relationship is too “friendly” and reeks of the way railways operated in the 19th Century. If interested check out BNSF net income for 2013: $3.8 billion (after expenses). The rail companies profits make our big banks in Canada look like corner stores.

    Like

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