West Pearl River advocate Janice O’Berry says she first raised concerns about the integrity of a railroad bridge that crosses Old Pearl River in the Honey Island Swamp about a year ago, when a dropping midsummer water line revealed heavy corrosion on the bridge’s steel pilings.
The trestle bridge, which belongs to Norfolk Southern Corp., has eight piling bents — clusters of pilings that support the bridge deck — with two on the banks and six in the water. All of the pilings are covered with a coating of rust that comes off with a touch. Some are completely eaten away in the middle, looking like jagged teeth on the bridge’s underside.
O’Berry, who goes out on the water most days, says that some work was done on the bridge last year. She saw workers replace pilings in the bent on the southern bank of the waterway, and while she was unhappy that they threw pieces of the old piling to the side, she was pleased to see some work being done on the structure.
But now, a year later, the water is low again, and O’Berry, passing the bridge by boat on Monday, pointed out the corroded condition of pilings in the other bents. When trains rumble over the trestle bridge, she said, it visibly sags, and debris flakes off the pilings and falls into the water.
But while O’Berry sees a potential hazard, Norfolk Southern is adamant that the bridge is regularly inspected, maintained and safe for train and passenger traffic, spokeswoman Susan Terpay said.
The railroad sent out inspectors to watch traffic cross the bridge on Monday — the same day that reporters began making inquiries in response to a picture of the bridge O’Berry had posted on her Facebook page. The inspectors found no evidence of sagging or of pieces falling off the rusted pilings, Terpay said.
The inspectors, who were in a boat under the bridge when O’Berry and reporters came up to the scene, scrambled for the southern bank. They declined to answer questions and stayed on the bank for nearly two hours — until O’Berry and the press left.
It’s not clear which train they observed. The Amtrak train coming from Meridian, Mississippi, was delayed and had not arrived as daylight was beginning to fade.
Terpay said the railroad has installed six new steel pilings since Hurricane Katrina, and they are holding up the bridge.
“All of your photos show rust/oxidation on pilings that are not supporting the bridge,” she wrote in an email response to pictures sent to her by WWL-TV. “Each one of these old pilings has been replaced with new steel pilings that are supporting the bridge. This is not an unusual practice to leave some of the pilings in place,” she said.
Terpay said Norfolk Southern will begin removing some of the old pilings this month.
Her explanation of the work, relayed in a series of emails, does not make clear whether the six new pilings she cited are all located in one piling bent or if they were placed in each of the eight bents.
Neither the state nor the parish has any authority over railroads, which are regulated by the federal government. Railroads are required to inspect bridges annually, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Norfolk Southern denied a request for the most recent report on the bridge, with Terpay saying inspection reports are not public records.
Norfolk Southern’s bridge inspection and maintenance standards “meet or exceed the requirement set by the Federal Railroad Administration,” she said. The railroad maintains 9,749 bridges across 22 states, she said.
Still, O’Berry insists that debris does fall into the water when trains pass. More critically, she worries about freight trains carrying chemicals and the potential for environmental harm to the swamp should an accident occur. She wants Norfolk Southern to “do something with the bridge to ensure the safety of citizens of the town who use the waterway and those who use the bridge.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.