The bridge's age and condition worry officials at the South Jersey Port Corp., who say the bridge limits freight business in southern New Jersey.
"It's the only rail link into South Jersey," said John Maier, corporate board secretary for the Port Corp. "It's a concern to us in the maritime industry. . .. It's an old, old bridge, beyond its prime."
The bridge can accommodate neither heavy loads nor wide loads, limiting the usefulness of the port's terminals in Camden, Salem and Paulsboro. Maier said the bridge couldn't handle double-stacked trains or heavy military loads, which have to go elsewhere.
Dan Stessel, a spokesman for NJ Transit, said the rating was "based on a structural analysis indicating that the superstructure capacity was less than when originally constructed due to normal deterioration."
He said the bridge, like all the other 127 "poor" bridges used by NJ Transit, was safe for trains.
Conrail, which owns and maintains the bridge, disagrees with NJ Transit's rating. Conrail spokesman John Enright said, "We've invested a fair amount of money in maintaining and addressing conditions on the bridge over the last three to four years."
"I'm not sure why they would rate it as poor. We certainly don't believe it is in poor condition," Enright said.
There are speed limits for trains crossing the bridge, he said, but declined to say what they are. On a trip last week, a NJ Transit train - much lighter than a freight train - crossed the bridge at about 30 m.p.h.
The bridge is seeing more passengers: More than 200,000 people boarded the Atlantic City train in Philadelphia last year and rode over the bridge (and, presumably, about the same number returned, although NJ Transit doesn't record that). Passenger traffic on the entire line was up about 8 percent last year, with a record 1.3 million passenger trips.
Since the bridge is privately owned and maintained, its inspection records are not open to the public. The Federal Railroad Administration does not regulate bridge structural safety, though the agency monitors rail companies' bridge inspection programs.
The Pennsylvania Railroad built the 4,400-foot Delair Bridge in 1896, with a rotating section to permit ships to pass. In 1960, that section was replaced with a lift span that can be raised and lowered for shipping.
The bridge crosses the river between Bridesburg and Pennsauken, adjacent to the Betsy Ross Bridge (originally also named the Delair), which opened to highway traffic in 1976.
The Southern New Jersey Development Council, based in Turnersville, has reconstruction of the Delair Bridge high on its wish list. Maier, a member of the board of the development council, said he did not know what it would cost to rebuild or replace the bridge.
Unlike highway traffic, which can be detoured around closed bridges, rail traffic would have little access to south Jersey if something happened to the Delair.
"As tragic as it would be to lose a highway bridge, there are other routes to get around," Maier said. "There ain't no way to get into southern New Jersey if this bridge goes out."
Conrail has no current plans to repair the bridge, Enright said.
"It's an old bridge, and you have to pay attention to it," he said. "And we do."
Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com.