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Robo-Trains Bringing New Dangers to a Richmond Neighborhood Near You
September 16, 2006


It was in an E-FORUM dated September 9, 2003, I first alerted Richmonders that BNSF planned to introduce remote controlled locomotives in our city. Subsequently, BNSF representatives were invited to the City Council Public Safety and Public Services Committee, which was to consider adopting a resolution similar to that adopted by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on May 6, 2003, urging the California Public Utility Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt regulations to ensure that the safety of Richmond citizens is not at risk by the use of remote controlled locomotives.

BNSF, however, maintained that the use of remote controlled trains in Richmond was simply an unfounded rumor and that I should be ashamed for circulating it without consulting with them first. Well, the rumor is again circulating and seems to have a little more substance this time.

I emailed several BNSF contacts to ask for confirmation, but I received no response.

My information is coming from:

Timothy L. Smith, Chairman

California State Legislative Board

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen

Teamster's Rail Conference


916-996-2967  Cell

530-823-7215  FAX

610 Auburn Ravine Rd., Suite C

Auburn, CA  95603


As I understand it, the planned remote control operation will be in the south part of Richmond and will involve grade crossings at public streets. I have also been told that the operations will result in longer blockages of these grade crossings.


The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which considers this technology to be dangerous and unproductive, maintains a website at http://www.ble.org/remotecontrol/ that details huge safety concerns about remote controlled trains and includes dozens of media stories and photographs about accidents related to unmanned locomotives.


The Federal Railroad Administration, which tends to be an apologist and buffer for the railroads, has information on its website at http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/94.


Apparently, as part of the implementation preparation, BNSF has installed equipment at three locations, including Nicholl Knob, without permits from the City of Richmond. I have asked Richmond officials if BNSF is required top obtain building permits, but I have received no answer. This is part of a disturbing pattern of stonewalling my questions by Richmond City staff that seems to be increasing in frequency and which greatly frustrates me.


There is a related development that could compound the danger.


Railroad companies are using tracks near Central Avenue and Interstate 580 as well as near Marina Bay a parking lot for tank cars carrying highly explosive, flammable and toxic materials within 50 to 100 feet of Richmond residents.  Risk relating to scheduled moving trains is understood when living or working near a railroad, but people are generally unaware that they live or work permanently next to parked hazardous waste tankers, changed out every day of the week.


Railroad sources explained that, “the tracks along I-580 and Carlson Blvd are the interchange tracks between Union Pacific and Richmond Pacific. The cars here are essentially in transit between the two railroads and are usually only on these tracks for less than 12 hours, never more than a couple of days at the most.”


“As for Marina Bay Parkway, that yard is used for marshalling cars destined to/from the Richmond Inner Harbor industries. This yard has served this function for well over 70 years and will continue to do so into the future. The cars in this yard in some instances do carry hazardous materials, but by law we are only allowed to park hazmat cars here temporarily, while the hazmat cars are in transit to their final destination. We must file a Hazardous Materials Business Plan with the county before we can store any hazmat car for more than 30 days, something we do not do. Any cars that are stored for lengthy periods of time are non-hazardous.”


“As info, we explained all of this to the Planning Commission and the City Council last year as part of our unsuccessful attempt to stop the new Pulte Homes townhouse development at Marina Bay.”


I recall a lot of discussion of noise and air pollution by railroad representatives at the Pulte hearing, but I honestly don’t recall the subject of parking rail cars with hazardous materials being brought up.


In a related development, the California legislature just sent to the governor on August 30, 2006, AB 158 that would create the Special Railroad Safety Task Force, comprised of specified members. The bill would require the task force to meet monthly from January 2007 to December 2007, inclusive, and to study certain railroad safety issues, and make recommendations for improving railroad safety measures. The bill would require the task force, no later than 90 days after its last meeting, to submit a written report to the commission setting forth its findings and recommendations relating to railroad safety issues. The bill would require the commission to include the findings and recommendations of the task force in its July 1, 2008, report to the Legislature on sites on railroad lines that are found to be hazardous. These provisions would become inoperative on July 1, 2008, and would be repealed on January 1, 2009, unless a later enacted statute deletes or extends that date.


The following information was included as background by the Assembly committee considering AB 158:

“Over the past few years, trains have derailed in the Los Angeles region near housing developments. In June 2003, a runaway train derailed in the City of Commerce, which destroyed 2 homes and injured 13 people. In October 2004, a train on the same corridor derailed near Pico Rivera. It damaged 2 homes and about 200 people had to evacuate. More recently, in April 2005, a train derailed in San Bernardino that forced more than 300 people to evacuate their homes. Due to increased demand for manufactured and imported goods, and the completion of a new rail line to facilitate the movement of commuters and harbor imports, rail traffic is expected to continue to increase, which is expected to result in more train accidents. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has virtual plenary authority over railroad operations and often preempts the states with regard to rail safety issues. However, the states maintain “