U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.) called today for stronger federal safety regulation of rail bridges, following the derailment and chemical spill in Paulsboro that has forced the evacuation of about 400 residents.

The inspection of privately owned rail bridges should not be left to their owners, said Andrews, whose district includes Paulsboro. He will seek to change the law to require independent inspections by a federal authority, such as the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

"Self-reporting isn't working here," Andrews said at a news conference. "We need to have a federal authority inspect these bridges and not just take their word for it."

The Paulsboro bridge that failed Friday is owned and operated by Conrail, a subsidiary of CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. Since it is privately owned and maintained, its inspection records are not open to the public.

The owners of the nation's 77,000 freight rail bridges are required to inspect the spans at least once a year, but they need not disclose the results.

The Federal Railroad Administration does not regulate rail bridge structural safety, though it monitors rail companies' inspection programs.

The "normal pressures in any business" might prevent owners from making needed repairs without independent inspections, Andrews said.

He also was critical of the decision by a Conrail dispatcher in Mount Laurel to permit the train that derailed to operate through a red signal.

"What's the value of the red-light warning system if people are going to ignore it?" Andrews asked.

The train's engineer asked for permission to cross the bridge after he was uable to get a green signal by keying in a code on an electronic pad, similar to a garage-door opener. The train's conductor had walked the bridge and reported that it looked secure.

The swing bridge had an intricate locking mechanism to align the bridge tracks with those on shore and to secure the bridge to its abutment. All four locks had to be in place for electronic sensors to trigger a green signal.

A dispatcher may authorize an engineer to operate through a red signal in some circumstances, said Kevin Thompson, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. The most common reasons are a track circuit malfunction or a signal malfunction, he said.

Andrews also said the Coast Guard was not moving quickly enough to clean up the accident, which sent several tank cars into Mantua Creek, spewing vinyl chloride into the air.

The release of the hazardous chemical forced the evacuation of nearby residents. Those displaced may not be allowed to return until Saturday.

"This is too slow," Andrews said. "This can be done safely but more quickly."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.