At 12:55 a.m. on the morning of September 22, 1993 the towboat Mauvilla departed Mobile, Alabama, pushing three barges loaded with steel pylons up the Mobile River. A little over an hour into its journey, caught in a heavy fog typical of the Mobile River Delta, the pilot of the Mauvilla mistakenly turned into the Big Bayou Canot channel while searching for a place to tie off on shore and wait for the fog to lift. Moments after making this wrong turn, the Mauvilla lurched to a halt. They had not hit shore, but rather hit the Big Bayou Canot Bridge, a 60 year old bridge initially designed as a movable swing bridge, but later converted to fixed cantilever bridge. The collision caused the bridge to swing three feet on its pivot, deforming, but not breaking, the railroad tracks that ran across it.
Eight minutes after the collision, at 2:53 a.m., the eastbound Amtrak Sunset Limited hit the segment of deformed track at 72 miles per hour, and careened off the bridge and into the Big Bayou Canot channel. The lead locomotive buried itself headfirst in 46 feet of mud, with the two auxiliary units and four of the eight cars landing in the channel and bursting into flames. Of the 220 passengers and crew aboard the Sunset Limited, 47 died by drowning, fire, or smoke inhalation and another 103 were injured. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that no one was criminally liable, but a later independent investigation for National Geographic found that a simple iron block welded onto the bridge could have secured it against unintended movement.
The Big Bayou Canot Bridge, aging and improperly modified, is not an exception for our nation’s infrastructure; it is the norm. The Northeast Corridor, the busiest railway corridor in the United States, is dependent on a series of hundred-year-old swing bridges. The Portal Bridge, a double tracked swing bridge connecting Newark to Manhattan constructed in 1910, routinely gets stuck in the open position, delaying up 70,000 NJ Transit and Amtrak riders. The Pelham Bay Bridge, the sole connection between the northern and southern halves of the Northeast Corridor, was constructed in 1907, and has speed restrictions of 45 miles an hour, a far cry from the 110 mph speed limit on its approaches. In Connecticut alone there are 10 swing bridges, including the 120-year-old Walk Bridge, which is integral to the operation of the Northeast Corridor. In an incident similar to the Big Bayou Canot disaster, the St. Paul Union Pacific Bridge in Minnesota was damaged in 2017 after a towboat collided with it.
Fixing this national problem is no easy task. The Maryland Department of Transportation spent $22 million simply on designing and determining the environmental impact of replacing their Susquehanna River Bridge. Additionally, it has been estimated that Amtrak will require $52 billion between 2010 and 2030 to bring the Northeast Corridor up to a state-of-good-repair, with an additional $40 billion required to expand the corridor to meet future capacity demands. These costs are staggering, especially when one considers that this is does not include continuous maintenance costs, and is only a fraction of the country’s rail infrastructure. When considered along with the other major transportation infrastructure such as roads, airports, and seaports, the costs of improving legacy infrastructure such as aging swing bridges appears even more daunting.
In spite of the high costs associated with upgrading and replacing our nation’s aging infrastructure, the costs of not investing are tragically evident. In one night in the bayou, 47 people perished, in part due to the absence of a $300 iron block on a 60-year-old bridge. As demands on our nation’s transportation infrastructure continue to grow, the likelihood of further tragedy will increase. This begs the question, are we willing to pay the price of not investing in our infrastructure?
Sources and Further Reading
The Derailment of the Sunset Limited – United States Fire Administration
Derailment of Amtrak Train NO. 2 on the CSXT Big Bayou Canot Bridge – National Transportation Safety Board
Seconds from Disaster – National Geographic
Derailment of Amtrak Train NO. 12 and sideswipe of Amtrak Train NO. 79 on Portal Bridge near Secaucus, New Jersey – National Transportation Safety Board
A 21st Century NEC: The Top Four Failing Bridges that Must Be Replaced – Northeast Alliance for Rail
Pelham Bay Bridge Replacement – Northeast Corridor Commission
Crucial, Century-Old, And Sometimes Stuck: Connecticut Bridge Is Key To Northeast Corridor – WNPR Connecticut Public Radio
St. Paul railroad bridge reopened after barge collision – Twin Cities
Field Hearing: The Importance of the Northeast Corridor – Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, United States House of Representatives