BATH, Maine — Steel has rusted away on the 88-year-old Carlton Bridge, resulting in “very, very low” ratings on a 2013 routine inspection, but a Maine Department of Transportation official said she is “completely comfortable” sending freight trains weighing hundreds of tons over the bridge several times each week.
During testimony earlier this month to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Joyce Taylor, chief engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the bridge didn’t meet load criteria during a fall 2013 inspection.
The bridge over the Kennebec River between Bath and Woolwich carries seasonal excursion trains operated by Maine Eastern Railroad and trains hauling freight for Dragon Products Company, which manufactures cement, and Dicaperl, a perlite production facility, both located in Thomaston.
On Friday, Taylor said that when the bridge failed a fall 2013 routine inspection, Maine transportation officials called for an in-depth inspection and then a detailed bridge load reading.
“The initial results were troubling,” Taylor said. “They sent us an email that told us a few of the ratings were as low as 0.2, and anything below 1.0, you have to really look at and question. 0.2 is very, very low.”
“The immediate thing we did was to call up the users of the bridge and say, ‘We can’t run a train until we look at the numbers and assumptions that went into the load ratings,” she said, noting that those documents include 5,000 to 6,000 pages of calculations. “They look at every single gusset plate, every piece of steel that somehow connected to something else.”
The documents indicated that “some steel had rusted away,” Taylor said. “It’s supposed to be an inch, but it lost a quarter-inch so it lost some strength.”
Traffic on the bridge, which is only used for rail, was halted from Feb. 23 to Feb. 25, 2014.
When state transportation officials used a model built by a consultant to evaluate the bridge, “the results were better,” Taylor said. “We felt comfortable letting the train go across the bridge.”
Taylor noted that safety “codes tend to be very conservative” with railroad bridges and “tell you to load rate it based on a really big train with lots of cars,” so Maine transportation officials surveyed users to gauge the typical weight of trains crossing the bridge.
Derek Cusack is vice president and general counsel for Pennsylvania-based Dicalite Management Corp., of which Dicaperl Thomaston is a subsidiary. Dicaperl runs a couple of trains per month across the bridge — trains that can include several rail cars each weighing as much as 100 tons, Cusack said Friday.
Chuck Jensen, vice president and chief operating officer of Maine Eastern Railroad, said Friday that the state informed the railroad of the study and there are “deficiencies.”
“Those deficiencies aren’t serious enough to stop what the bridge is designed for, which is running trains,” he said.
Jensen said the state has placed no restrictions on his company’s trains but has asked Maine Eastern Railroad to notify state officials of which days they intend to run a train.
“They’re not going to let a train go across it if anyone thought it was going to fail,” Jensen said. “This is all about precautions.”
“We ran a train across it today,” Jensen said Friday. “A good-sized one, actually. A 12-car train full of cement.”
Still, Taylor said, one steel beam on the bridge did lose steel and must be addressed soon. Although, she noted, “Nobody was concerned about running a train today. We have a window of time to get that fixed.”
Otherwise, “I think for today’s use and what we anticipate in the next year, we’re comfortable,” she said.
Still, the Maine Department of Transportation must decide if it wants to keep the bridge open, Taylor said, and if so, how to pay to maintain it. A working plan is due by October, and Taylor said the department will look at options to propose to Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt to keep the bridge viable — options such as removing the top deck of the bridge that used to carry automobiles in order to ease stress on the steel or painting the bridge to stop corrosion.
“The fourth option would be to do nothing, and the bridge will get to the end of its useful life,” Taylor said. Bridges are typically designed to last 75 to 100 years, she said.
But that wouldn’t work for Cusack.
“The bridge is vital to our operation and obviously it’s in our interest that the bridge remains viable,” he said. “It’s very important to our ongoing operations. There are other options, but there’s a reason we do things this way.”
“This is not a crisis for the short term at all,” Taylor said. “We could do nothing, and I would feel pretty comfortable allowing the trains to use the bridge for awhile.”
The Federal Rail Authority has oversight of the state-owned bridge, but information about recent audits and tests was not immediately available on Monday, according to the Federal Rail Authority spokesman Michael Booth.
Phone calls and emails to Dragon Products Company on Friday and Monday were not returned.