By Pat Ciarrocchi

PAULSBORO, N.J. (CBS) – There are more than 77,000 railroad bridges in the United States, many of them carrying volatile chemicals. The bridge that collapsed in Paulsboro is supposed to be inspected by the rail company. In this case that’s Conrail. But Eyewitness News has learned that the public doesn’t get to see those reports. (See related story)

Some people who live near the Conrail bridge in Paulsboro thought there was a problem days ago, according to New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“They heard a loud bang a couple of days ago and actually ran out,” Sweeney said. “They thought that maybe a train derailed. There was no train there. There is something wrong with the bridge.”

VIEW: Photos From The Scene

At least that’s what Sweeney suspects. The NTSB will determine that. But who’s in charge of making sure railroad bridges are safe?

Bridges for vehicles, the ones we drive every day, are inspected by government agencies such as state departments of transportation. But Eyewitness News has found rail bridges are not always inspected by government agencies. A division of the Department of Transportation, the Federal Railroad Administration, usually just oversees how companies do rail bridge inspections. Rail carriers do their own inspections every year, and those inspection reports are not available to the public.

Right now, Conrail isn’t saying much. Its spokesperson on the scene, John Enright, took no questions and said, “We will be working very closely with federal investigators to determine the cause. Updated information will be provided as more details about the incidents are known.”

Some critics says the rail industry isn’t policing itself well enough. In July, a rail bridge collapsed outside Chicago, killing two people. The attorney handling that case, Michael Krzak, says rail companies shouldn’t handle their own inspections.

“The railroads who make big profits moving freight shouldn’t be the ones who are given carte blanche authority to inspect their own rail,” Krzak said.

Conrail will have to answer to the NTSB, which is asking to see all inspection and maintenance records of the bridge and the rails.

The Federal Railroad Administration tells Eyewitness News it has inspected 34 rail bridges nationwide since 2010.

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