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New West rail bridge 'back to normal'

One month after a barge takes out rail bridge, trains are able to cross once again

The month-long saga of the busted New Westminster rail bridge is almost at its end as bridge repairs are nearly complete and rail traffic has resumed.

Southern Railway of B.C. began test running trains over the weekend after Fraser River Pile and Dredge lifted the repaired swing span back onto its pedestal.

"We got it up and running. That was a huge accomplishment that was completed on Saturday evening," said Frank Butzelaar, Southern Railway president. "From an operating perspective, we're back to normal now."

The bridge's protection pier, span and swing mechanism were heavily damaged when a gravel barge crashed into it in the early morning hours of June 28.

After that, Southern Railway had to arrange for the 436-tonne span to be lifted off its pedestal and barged to a nearby repair facility where it had a 40-foot steel girder replaced.

Engineers had to get on the pedestal to replace parts in the damaged internal gear and hydraulic mechanism that allow the span to rotate, as well as replace the ball-and-socket joint the bridge pivots on.

"It was an aggressive timetable to have it done in basically a month. Honestly, there were points where I didn't think we'd be able to do it, and it was because of an amazing effort by so many people, both in our company and outside our company, that we're actually able to achieve that," Butzelaar said.

Repairs to the bridge's downstream protection pier will likely take two to three more months, and the north arm of the Fraser River will remain closed to boat traffic until engineers have finished reinstalling the bridge's turning mechanism.

"The bridge, in the condition it's in right now, cannot swing yet. So while we're back in operation, the marine community is not. That's what we're working right now - recovering the ability to swing. We expect we'll be able to do that by the end of this week," Butzelaar said.

Closure of the north arm of the Fraser meant some boat and tug traffic has had to detour down to the south arm, adding hours to each trip.

New Westminster Quay residents had been enjoying the quiet nights that came with the decrease in rail traffic in the nearby rail yard during the bridge's shutdown, Butzelaar acknowledged, but added Southern Railway is always looking for ways to mitigate noise.

"We understand the issues that they have with our operations, and to the degree that we can accommodate them, we always try to accommodate them," he said. "We continue to make investments in our railway to reduce noise."

A recent example Butzelaar mentioned involved spending $1.3 million to replace individual tracks in Queensborough with quieter, welded tracks.

"When those cars go over the joints, they shudder. So what we did is remove all those joints and put in continuously welded rail to reduce the noise through that stretch of our track," he said.

He said the company has also updated its track lubrication to reduce the amount of squealing.

"It used to be a common complaint, and we don't hear as much of that anymore. and we keep the rails properly lubricated," he said.

Transport Canada has concluded Mercury Launch and Tug, the company that was shipping the gravel, was in compliance with transportation and safety regulations at the time of the accident.

The Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause and contributing factors in the crash.