Robert Hassold looked at pictures of the Pan Am Railways rail trestle that crosses Great Bay and worried about the condition of the bridge crossing.
"They look rickety, they look like they're in desperate need of repair," Hassold, a tugboat captain, said this week at his home in Portsmouth. "Personally, I don't think you'd walk over those bridges."
His concerns were shared by Great Bay Piscataqua Waterkeeper Jeff Barnum as he looked at a map showing the trestle that crosses Great Bay between Newfields and Stratham.
"It's got 1,500 feet of exposure. If something fell off the tracks, it goes into the water," Barnum said. "There are two other water crossings on this 13½-mile stretch of railroad."
But what has Barnum and Hassold concerned — along with numerous Portsmouth officials — is that Pan Am Railways is not required to share its annual inspection reports of the bridges with the public.
Barnum and Hassold say if the reports showed the bridges to be in good condition, Pan Am Railways would release them.
Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine worries not only about the condition of the trestle over Great Bay, but the condition of all of Pan Am's bridges on the Portsmouth line.
"It's clear to me we're putting way too much trust in Pan Am's in-house inspections," Splaine said Friday. "They're supposed to be looking at them and inspecting them at least once a year. We should not have to have that kind of blind trust in a corporation."
Their comments came the same week that Portsmouth's Staff Attorney Jane Ferrini announced the city was working toward an agreement that could result in the city dropping its two appeals of the Newington Planning Board's decision to approve an expansion of the Sea-3 propane terminal. The approval, if not successfully appealed, will lead to a substantial increase in the number of railcars carrying propane on Pan Am lines in the Seacoast from the Rockingham Junction in Newfields to Sea-3 in Newington.
Ferrini this past week said the potential agreement between Sea-3 and Portsmouth for the company to do a safety study of its facility would focus on the site, and not on the condition of Pan Am's tracks. She said questions raised by city officials and residents about the condition of the tracks is a "statewide concern that the mayor has reached out to the governor's office to pursue and request a statewide rail study."
Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen said she's "very concerned" about any deal reached by the city with Sea-3 that doesn't include the condition of the tracks. She also has called for Pan Am to release its bridge inspection reports.
"I thank ultimately we can't move forward as a municipality without some very strong assurances that the safety of the tracks is where there need to be," Shaheen said, adding, "This is still a very fluid situation."
But Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano said Friday the company won't release its bridge inspection reports. When asked why the company would not give them to city officials as requested, Scarano said, "Because the agency that is put in place by the federal government, and that has the knowledge and the education necessary to look at those inspection sheets, has them."
She maintains that "it becomes a safety and security issue when they all of a sudden become a public document."
Portsmouth Deputy City Manager Dave Allen said Friday an official with the Federal Railroad Administration told city officials the bridges in Portsmouth were inspected in May and were found to be in good condition.
Scarano said that in addition to the annual inspections Pan Am does of its bridges, it also inspects its tracks, including the ones on the bridges, every week.
FRA spokesman Mike England said Pan Am has installed 5,000 new cross ties on the Portsmouth branch line and 2,000 relay ties. He said the metal part of the rail has been "entirely resurfaced" for all 13-plus miles on the line.
Scarano said the line is considered a Class 1 line, which means trains can no faster than 10 mph. If the line were upgraded to Class 2, trains could go as fast as 25 mph, under FRA regulations, but city officials have asked Pan Am to commit to running its trains at only 10 mph.
"What we have stated is if we bring it up to a Class 2 classification, we're going to reserve the right to go 25 mph," Scarano said. "But in my lifetime, I don't see it happening because of the crossings and the distance of the line."
She said Pan Am has never had a derailment on the Portsmouth branch of the line and it is committed to operating safely.
"Propane is crucial for all of us," she said Friday. "We just want to deliver it safely."
Asked if Pan Am will pay for all or part of improving the railroad crossings in Portsmouth, Scarano said it's too early to say. She did say the rail company's engineering department has met at least once with Portsmouth Department of Public Works officials to "start taking a look at some of the crossings." But she said until it's clear what exactly needs to be done to improve the crossings, Pan Am won't commit to taking on the cost of the improvements.
Because the railroad "then becomes responsible" for maintaining the crossings, she said.
But Splaine argues that's something the railroad should do.
"They have to pay for this," Splaine said. "They're going to make a lot of money" if the Sea-3 expansion is ultimately approved.