Gravel barge severely damages British Columbia railroad bridge

A gravel barge crashed into a railroad bridge over British Columbia's Fraser River, knocking the train line out of commission for a month.

The tug F.W. Wright was pulling Empire 40 in the river June 28, 2011, when it struck the Queensborough rail bridge near the community of New Westminster. The tow was proceeding downstream under the bridge at about 0430 when the barge smashed the swing bridge, which spans a portion of the river but pivots to allow marine traffic to pass.

The swing section of British Columbia's Queensborough rail bridge lies embedded in a load of gravel carried by the barge Empire 40. The loaded barge struck the bridge and damaged it so badly that the busy rail line was shut down for a month. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

The 41-foot tugboat is part of the Mercury Launch & Tug fleet of four tugs. The 1,674-ton Empire 40 is owned by Lafarge Canada.

It is still unclear exactly what caused the mishap, authorities said. One possible factors is that the Fraser River was in freshet at the time, said Raymond Mathew, manager for marine investigations at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB). The narrow passage through the swing bridge is known as a tight spot to river mariners.

"In this instance the freshet was higher than normal and I am sure that played a part," Mathew said."We know for a fact, just the way the river is angled and the bridge is placed, it is not an easy task. It is a difficult transit to make. They have to come around the curve and straighten out and struggle with the currents."

The TSB has launched an investigation. Mathew said the board is still in the process of gathering information.

"Once we gather information and get a sequence of events, we will decide whether there will be a full report or a safety letter," he said.

Mercury Launch & Tug declined a request to comment to Professional Mariner on the incident.

The short line Southern Railway of B.C. (SRY), a subsidiary of the Washington Group, owns the bridge, which provides rail transportation for 30 businesses including automobile-shipping terminals and industrial operations on Annacis Island.

It operates a fleet of 29 locomotives and 2,000 cars, and hauls approximately 70,000 carloads per year. It operates around 123 miles of track.

Damage to the bridge was extensive, and the closure caused major difficulties in moving freight to customers, said SRY President and Chief Executive Frank Butzelaar.

"There was significant damage to the protection pier — the piles that protect the span. It is a barrier around the swing span," Butzelaar said. "Two-thirds of that was destroyed. Other significant damage was to the span. A section of one of the girders had to be replaced. We had to fabricate a new 40-foot section of girder."

In addition, the pedestal on which the bridge pivots was damaged.

"It is kind of a ball and socket," Butzelaar said. "That mechanism had to be rebuilt."

With the rail bridge out of commission for over a month, freight destined to and from Annacis Island had to be moved using other methods.

"We managed to reroute some of our freight to Tilbury (on the south side of the Fraser River) on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, loaded it onto rail ships and ferried them across the river to Annacis to a barge terminal and delivered to our customers there," Butzelaar said.

Oversize car carriers were a different matter. SRY had to set up a loading facility in its New Westminster yard and purchase and install a ramp. The railroad contracted a company to unload the railcars and distribute them onto Annacis Island.

After the extensive repairs, the railroad bridge reopened July 30.

By Professional Mariner Staff