"Risk on the rails:" FOX6 investigations a wakeup call for Washington; will things change?

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- FOX6's Brad Hicks began his "Risk on the Rails" series of investigations one year ago, and now -- a wakeup call for Washington. FOX6 first exposed the concern in Milwaukee's Fifth Ward last spring -- corroding columns on a Canadian Pacific railroad bridge that raised questions about bridge safety and railroad secrecy.

For six months, the story has been picking up steam, and now, the federal government is putting the railroad companies on notice.

"This is a warning. We've talked to you at various levels and asked you to be more open. If railroads continue to respond with silence on the issue of bridge safety, Congress will ask us to step in more aggressively," Sarah Feinberg, new Federal Railroad Administration administrator said.

The Federal Railroad Administration has reprimanded the industry it regulates.

Six months ago, FOX6's Brad Hicks showed you how years of road salt have rusted away the bast of I-beams that support the railroad bridge over S. 1st Street. Some of those I-beams are so corroded, there are huge holes.

"At some point this needs to be fixed. This is not acceptable," Chris Raebel, a steel construction engineer said.

The aging steel is a special concern because freight trains carrying an explosive form of crude oil from the Bakken oil fields cross the bridge on a daily basis, and come within feet of Fifth Ward lofts.

"We are talking about a serious safety concern," Senator Tammy Baldwin said.

The corroded columns are concern enough, but FOX6 also found layers of flaking metal -- indicating Canadian Pacific officials hadn't looked closely at the base of the bridge in years.

"It`s obvious to me that nobody has been inspecting that bridge," Bob Comer, railroad safety expert said.

S. 1st Street bridge inspection

Sure enough, just days after FOX6's report, Canadian Pacific suddenly had inspectors swarming the bridge -- scraping away the flaking from the very columns Brad Hicks had featured in his report.

Now -- Canadian Pacific plans to fix the bridge it said was fine.

All of the I-beams will be excavated down, rebar drilled deep into existing foundations and a three-foot high concrete wall will encase the rows of corroded columns.

Canadian Pacific plans to repair S. 1st Street bridge

Canadian Pacific plans to repair S. 1st Street bridge

"They wouldn`t be doing anything about this bridge if you hadn`t started your investigative series," Comer said.

But FOX6's investigation exposed an even bigger problem than just that bridge. Railroad companies are required to inspect their bridges every year -- but when FOX6 pressed Canadian Pacific to produce its recent reports, to show any proof it had ever inspected the bridge, CP flatly refused.

FOX6's Brad Hicks: "Why won't you release any of the reports?"

"We've given you a statement on that and won't have anything to add," Andy Cummings with Canadian Pacific said.

When officials with the city of Milwaukee followed up with its own request after seeing FOX6's investigation -- they got the same answer.

"They've stonewalled us," Michael Murphy, Milwaukee Common Council president said. "They've hid behind bureaucracies."

City officials were told they would not be getting those inspection reports.

That`s exactly the road block officials in the city of Watertown ran into, when it complained to Canadian Pacific about a crumbling bridge over Main Street.

Railroad bridge over Main Street in Watertown

"You see the very vertical crack on that side," Jaynellen Holloway, city engineer said.

It's the same bridge the CP oil train that derailed on Sunday afternoon, November 8th had crossed a mere minute before 13 rail cars went off the tracks -- one of them leaking 300-500 gallons of crude oil.

Train derailment in Watertown (PHOTO: Karl Zarling)

"You`ve got another vertical crack here. Anytime it cracks, you can start getting failures," Holloway said.

Just like in Milwaukee's Fifth Ward, Canadian Pacific officials insisted the bridge was okay.

"It`s self-evident that the bridge is not okay," Fred Smith, Watertown Common Council president said.

And just like in Milwaukee, when Watertown officials requested the records, the company replied that bridge inspection records will not be provided.

It wasn't until Watertown officials threatened to go public that suddenly, bridge inspectors appeared -- just like in Milwaukee. And then, just like in Milwaukee, they discovered the bridge was not fine.

Inspection of railroad bridge over Main Street in Watertown

"It`s almost as if they were surprised to find the bridge in the deplorable condition it is when they did send an inspector out," Smith said.

A week later, Main Street was closed, and crews were addressing the crumbling concrete.

"It makes you wonder whether or not they`ve even been doing the annual inspections," Smith said.

It didn't take long for FOX6's investigation to catch the attention of the Federal Railroad Administration at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

"I applaud you. I think it's been great coverage," Sarah Feinberg said.

Sarah Feinberg, FRA administrator

Feinberg is the newly-confirmed FRA administrator, and appears to be putting the agency on a new track.

Since FOX6's reports, Feinberg has announced she is re-evaluating the FRA's bridge management program. She says she has sent a letter to the railroad companies, urging them to be more transparent about their bridge inspections.

"I think frankly the railroads should be willing to share that information," Feinberg said.

FOX6's Brad Hicks confronts Canadian Pacific's Herb Jones

But more than a month after that letter -- Canadian Pacific officials were addressing the Milwaukee Common Council about the S. 1st Street bridge.

"We have offered to have a closed meeting with you," Herb Jones with Canadian Pacific said.

FOX6's Brad Hicks: "Why are you offering to meet only behind closed doors and not with the media?"

"I explained that at the meeting," Jones said.

Brad Hicks: "What was the answer? I didn't hear it."

"Talk to public affairs, thank you," Jones said.

Brad Hicks: "The FRA just sent a letter to you last month, imploring the railroads, imploring Canadian Pacific, to be more transparent. Is this the kind of transparency we're talking about? Is this the new transparency?"

"It's not. And I've actually had a conversation with Canadian Pacific and asked them to be more transparent," Feinberg said.

Brad Hicks: "Has Canadian Pacific ever, to your knowledge, requested or asked the FRA not to share its inspection reports or findings with the public or the media?"

"Not that I know of," Feinberg said.

Canadian Pacific may have good reason to want to keep that S. 1st Street bridge inspection report private.

Documents obtained by FOX6 News show the FRA bridge safety specialist who reviewed it wrote: "The format of this report is terrible. It is not conducive to recording the condition of the bridge."

S. 1st Street bridge safety specialist

That review happened at the request of Senator Tammy Baldwin.

"She's been following your reporting closely," Baldwin said.

Baldwin has passed a provision in the Senate Transportation Bill -- requiring railroad companies to automatically hand over their most recent reports to the federal government.

Senator Tammy Baldwin

"They don`t appear to be willing to do it voluntarily -- so we need to mandate it. It`s a new day. And it`s not going away," Baldwin said.

That brings us back to Feinberg's warning to the railroad companies last week in Washington.

"Railroads are not yet doing enough to ease the concerns of the public. Ultimately I can only force them to do so much," Feinberg said.

If Baldwin's provision becomes law, the FRA will be able to force railroad companies to do much more.

"If ultimately we are instructed to take some additional steps, we'll absolutely do that and do it gladly," Feinberg said.

The House version of the Transportation Bill, passed last week, didn't include Senator Baldwin's provision on those bridge reports.

On Tuesday afternoon, she implored the Conference Committee trying to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions to include that provision in the final compromise.

As for the S. 1st Street bridge itself, the repair has been pushed back several times. It is now slated to start next week.

FOX6's Brad Hicks' "Risk on the Rails" investigations won an Emmy award this past weekend.

CLICK HERE for complete "Risk on the Rails" coverage via FOX6Now.com.