18 February 2008

If public safety is really so important, Charlene...

Five years after Auditor General John Noseworthy criticised the provincial government for not following its own policy on road bridge inspections, environment and conservation minister Charlene Johnson admitted on Monday that her department does not carry out regular inspections of the 132 bridges and trestles of the Newfoundland T'Railway.

Johnson ordered all bridges to be inspected starting this week, with the work being carried out by engineers, conservation officers and other parks officials. It isn't clear if professional engineers or certified technicians will inspect all bridges or what portion of the inspections  - if any - will be carried out by the park officers and wildlife officers.

Johnson said her department relied on public complaints from trail users to keep track of the condition of the bridges. She cited only one example of an inspection, in 2006, of the Main Gut trestle near Stephenville.

She gave no indication how this complaints-based system ensured proper maintenance.  Trail users might well observe crumbling decking but few would take the time to observe structural features of a bridge, even if they were engineers trained and experienced enough to understand what they were looking for in determining the health of a railway bridge.

Johnson did express surprise at learning of problems with the bridges.  The bridges were built and maintained for the Newfoundland Railway which ceased operation under a federal-provincial agreement 20 years ago.

In 2003, Auditor General John Noseworthy slammed the public works department for its inspections of 823 road bridges in the province. Noseworthy found that more than 50% of the bridges (379 of 715) requiring inspection every two years had not been inspected within the period set down in departmental policy. Of those 379, 47  - 12% - had a rating of poor or unsafe.

Noseworthy noted a policy to be applied to proper maintenance and risk reduction:

Bridge inspection is necessary to determine the safety of bridges on our highways and to determine required maintenance, rehabilitation and replacement. In order for the Department to apply a risk model to determine the priority and frequency of bridge inspections and to determine the priority for maintenance, rehabilitation and replacement, it requires detailed information about each of its 715 bridges.

In several interviews on Monday, Johnson insisted that public safety was of paramount importance to her department.  She told talk radio host Bill Rowe that "a person's life is the most important thing and we're not going to jeopardize that."

Rowe praised Johnson for her prompt action, despite her admission earlier in the day that her department had not conducted regular inspections of the bridges at any time.  "The woman jumps on things quickly," said Rowe.

The closure of 132 bridges and trestles coupled with an emergency inspection of the structures was triggered by a Transport Canada report that highlighted problems with 14 of the bridges that cross navigable waters. Another four, not over navigable waters, were also mentioned. That represents about 13% of the total number of structures.

The federal report, sent to the provincial government on February 11, did not demand closure of any structures but instead requested an action plan be delivered by 11 March on dealing with the 14 most troublesome bridges and trestles.

Johnson's hasty order to close all bridges and trestles may be a clue to the provincial government's lack of information on the conditions of the trailway infrastructure.

Her decision has caused consternation among trail users, especially snow mobile operators and tourism operators who depend on the trail for some portion of their annual business.