FRA Lacks Guidance on Overseeing Compliance with Bridge Safety Standards
Everything transported by rail in the U.S.—including passengers, consumer goods, coal, and hazardous materials—likely travels across one or more of approximately 100,000 railroad bridges. While structural failures of railroad bridges are rare, increasing traffic volume and loads traveling over aging bridges are causes for concern. In 2010, FRA issued a rule on Bridge Safety Standards that requires railroad track owners to implement bridge management programs that include procedures for determining bridge load capacities and inspecting bridges. In light of congressional interest and the importance of bridge structural integrity for safety, we conducted this audit. Our objective was to assess FRA’s oversight for ensuring that track owners’ bridge management programs comply with FRA’s rule on bridge safety. Specifically we examined FRA’s processes for (1) prioritizing track owners for bridge safety reviews, and (2) conducting bridge safety reviews and following up on identified issues of non-compliance.
FRA has not developed guidance on prioritization of track owners for bridge safety reviews. According to an FRA official, the Agency instead relies on the professional judgment of its bridge safety specialists, who have reached informal consensus on how to prioritize track owners. Furthermore, FRA does not maintain a comprehensive list of track owners that must comply with its Bridge Safety Standards. The Agency lacks information on industrial operations and certain tourist railroads that own railroad track and are subject to the rule. The lack of comprehensive identification of risks and guidance on prioritization makes it difficult for FRA to be sure it is effectively deploying oversight resources to review the highest-risk track owners. FRA also has not developed guidance for its specialists on conducting bridge safety reviews, and as a result, the specialists may not appropriately address all issues of regulatory non-compliance. Furthermore, FRA lacks guidance for its specialists on how to track and follow up on non-compliance and recommend civil penalties. FRA relies on each specialist to determine how to track and follow up on non-compliance. However, within our sample, specialists did not conduct follow-up reviews of track owners responsible for 55 percent of non-compliance issues and track owners were 35 percent less likely to correct issues when FRA did not follow-up. Therefore, FRA cannot be sure that track owners mitigate bridge safety risks.
We made six recommendations to FRA to improve its oversight of track owners’ compliance with the Bridge Safety Standards. FRA has concurred with all six.