The existing Susquehanna River Rail Bridge has an obsolete design and aging infrastructure, creates speed and rail capacity constraints, is operationally inflexible, poses maintenance difficulties, and creates conflicts with marine traffic. The Susquehanna River Rail Bridge undergoes regular safety inspections and received comprehensive, in-depth specialty inspections in 2013 and 2014. The results of the inspections indicate the bridge is structurally safe, though the existing bridge is nearing the end of its useful life.
Functionally Obsolete and Aging Infrastructure - The existing bridge is safe for current and near-term operations, but the structure is 110 years old and it is approaching the end of its service life. The antiquated design of the swing span requires as many as 30 workers for each opening and closing of the bridge.
Speed and Capacity Constraints - The existing two-track bridge creates a capacity and speed bottleneck. The segment of the NEC to the south of the bridge comprises three tracks and the segment to the north comprises four tracks. The open deck construction of the bridge limits the maximum authorized speed to 90 mph, whereas Amtrak passenger trains can travel up to 125 mph on the adjacent NEC segments. The existing bridge reduces the on-time performance for Amtrak, MARC and NS and poses a capacity constraint on planned increases in service frequency by all three railroads.
Operational Inflexibility - The limited number of tracks across the Susquehanna River combined with the wide variety of trains utilizing the bridge, and the need for continual maintenance, results in tightly managed and restrictive operations. The existing bridge requires that the slow, heavy freight trains and the MARC commuter trains share track with higher-speed Amtrak trains. Freight and commuter trains approach and leave the Northeast Corridor at just 15 mph. The resulting delays on the Norfolk Southern Port Road have impacts to the Port of Wilmington, the Port of Baltimore, and rail service destined for the Delmarva Peninsula. These delays create rippling effects in cargo shipments throughout the region and the nation.
Maintenance Difficulties - Few repairs and/or inspections can be made without disrupting rail operations, because of the frequency of train service on the bridge. Segments of track must be taken out of service to properly conduct these tasks. Furthermore, the limited number of tracks creates delays during scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. There are limited suitable time windows during which scheduled maintenance and/or inspections can occur, since commuter and intercity trains operate mostly during the day and freight users currently rely mostly upon nighttime access. The bridge will require more scheduled and unscheduled maintenance as it continues to age.
Conflicts with Maritime Uses - The existing bridge allows for a 52-foot vertical clearance for marine traffic. In accordance with U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) regulations, the swing span must be opened to allow for taller marine traffic, which disrupts rail operations. The bridge opens approximately ten times per year. The existing bridge's movable swing span causes train delays when opening is required for marine traffic and takes large crews to operate because work must be done quickly. Each bridge opening introduces risks of significant train delays if a breakdown of the operating mechanisms were to occur.
The primary purpose of the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Project is to provide continued rail connectivity along the Northeast Corridor. The goals of the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Project include: