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Long Trains to Increase in Richmond?

Rail infrastructure that was hastily constructed in the early days of WWII to serve the shipyards in south Richmond and which  was virtually abandoned for 60 years has now become part of a distribution network to the western states for Asian imports coming through the Port of Oakland.

Mile-long trains moving at 10 miles an hour or less can block as many as eight grade crossings at once, including Regatta Way, Marina Bay Parkway, Marina Way, Harbour Way South, West Cutting Boulevard, 2nd Street, Ohio Avenue and the Richmond Parkway (Garrard Leg). The consequences are numerous, including delays of drivers on the blocked roads and delay of fire and ambulance emergency vehicles. See June 1 Increase in Long Trains Through South Richmond, May 29, 2008.

The City Council, for the second time since 2004, has authorized the city manager to join with BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) to appeal to the Surface Transportation Board to allow BNSF access to the Union Pacific tracks, which parallel I-580 through Richmond and have higher speeds and fewer grade crossings.

What can you do? Contact the Surface Transportation Board to protest. The Surface Transportation Board website does not list email addresses, but the contact information for the chairman is as follows:

Chairman – Charles D. Nottingham, Suite 1220

Surface Transportation Board
395 E Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20423-0001


If anyone can get an email address, let me know.

Richmond pledges action on rail-crossing delays

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Article Launched: 06/04/2008 06:22:45 PM PDT

More freight trains, long a headache for drivers idling in traffic and residents living near tracks, are moving through more densely populated areas of Richmond.

A federal agency has nixed a deal between Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Union Pacific that allowed BNSF to run 120-car trains on UP tracks that circumvented the center of the city. The new ruling means one to two long trains a day will run on BNSF tracks with more grade crossings through more of the city, traveling at no more than 10 mph.

City officials on Tuesday pledged to work with Burlington Northern and back efforts to divert long trains. The two rail companies are in talks and seeking arbitation.

Train traffic from the Port of Oakland may be an economic plus for the region, but Richmond Councilman Jim Rogers said: "This broader benefit should not be done on our backs. This seems to be one more case where people just do what they want to do. We're suppose to roll over and play dead, and I'm really tired of it."

The disputed deal dates to around 2002, when Burlington Northern and Union Pacific changed their track-sharing agreement, which allowed BNSF to use a UP line that runs through parts of Richmond but generally skirts some busier areas; trains on the UP line can run faster than 10 mph. The federal Surface Transportation Board approved that agreement.

In February 2007, Union Pacific petitioned federal officials to reverse approval. The railway contended it made a mistake negotiating that part of the agreement and that Burlington Northern trains are interfering with UP and Amtrak operations, according to a Transportation Board document.

The board agreed to change its original approval because the revised agreement initially was presented as one with minor changes. The federal STB did not mean to approve such a substantial revision, a board majority wrote in its decision. The new ruling took effect Sunday.

Trains long have been considered a nuisance, blocking streets, holding up traffic and jostling neighbors with loud horns and rumbling.

Underscoring the point Tuesday, several people arrived late to the Richmond City Council meeting because trains stalled traffic at two intersections. Resident Jackie Thompson, who was among those delayed, said drivers at the second crossing backed up on the street and cut through a nearby business to take an alternate route to City Hall, a move that she said wasn't particularly safe but was understandable.

Thompson, who lives near a crossing, said trains also disrupt neighbors.

"When that train comes, the long ones, it runs sometimes 15 to 20 minutes," she said. "I still can't hear the TV, can't talk on the phone."

Burlington Northern operates about two trains a day to and from the Port of Oakland, fewer than the six to eight a day it used to run, said Juan Acosta, the railway's government affairs director. Train traffic has dropped over the years as the Port of Oakland lost business to competing ports and imports have decreased.

Over the last few years, Richmond city officials have tried to provide some relief for residents near train tracks by creating four "quiet zones" where train operators are barred from regularly sounding their horns except in emergencies when a person, animal or property is in danger.

The city is either studying or planning safety improvements at some crossings, such as a sidewalk or a median to prevent drivers from going around lowered railroad arms. In addition, a fifth quiet zone in the Market Avenue area is in the works, City Engineer Rich Davidson said.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Front Page News:

Oakland Port Rail Proposal’s Impacts May Hit Berkeley Landscape, Traffic

By Richard Brenneman

Thursday June 05, 2008

Is Berkeley being railroaded? That’s the question that was raised at the last Planning Commission meeting by both supporters and potential foes of a plan to upgrade and increase rail service through West Berkeley.

Some Richmond residents are also feeling that they’re on the other side of the tracks because of proposed routing of more mile-long trains through their city, disrupting access to neighborhoods like Marina Bay.

Concerns in Berkeley were raised by an April 10 decision by the California Transportation Commission awarding the Port of Oakland $74 million to begin the process of upgrading a 37-mile stretch of Union Pacific Rail lines between Oakland and Martinez.

That sum was part of a larger $456 million allocation—requested backing for rail upgrades reaching from the Tehachapi Mountains in the south to Donner Summit in the east—all designed to speed the move of goods through Northern California’s premier seaport.

The immediate focus of the port’s $74 million grant is the improvement of a 6.6-mile stretch of the line running from the port to the Stege Marsh area in South Richmond, where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line joins with the Union Pacific.

At the time the application was filed last year, the rails between those two points were carrying 66 trains daily, with 44 Amtrak passenger runs and the rest consisting of freight trains from the two railroads.

If funded, the improvements would boost freight traffic from its current handling of 30 percent of the port’s container traffic to 50 percent “without bringing gridlock to the corridor,” according to the funding application.

As the nation’s fourth busiest port, Oakland handles 99 percent of Northern California’s waterborne goods, and while Oakland handles the lion’s share of agricultural exports from the Central Valley, its volume of imports jumped more than 80 percent in the five years ending in 2006, a rate of growth eight times that of exports.

The proposal by Oakland officials calls for doubling the number of main line rail tracks along the 6.6-mile corridor to four, anticipating an increase in size and frequency of freight trains.

“This could have very significant impact on the community, and I want to be sure we’re all aware of it,” said Berkeley Planning Commissioner Harry Pollack, commenting on a letter on the plan submitted to the panel by Berkeley Design Advocates.

Land Use Planning Manager Debra Sanderson said city staff had met with officials from the port a week earlier “trying to understand what’s actually being proposed.”

“The conclusion I came away with is that nobody really knows.” she said. “Where the railroad is on this is a mystery ... but it will have a big effect on what happens in West Berkeley and how well we can protect the environment in West Berkeley.”

Not only would all overcrossings from the bay to the High Sierra have to be rebuilt to accommodate the expanded lines, but accomplishing the project’s goal would mean coordinating actions of a number of agencies, “including the railroad, which has a habit of acting somewhat independently,” she said.

In addition to rebuilding the overcrossings at University and Ashby avenues, the project will impact the roads in West Berkeley that cross the tracks at grade level: Gilman, Camellia, Cedar, Virginia and Addison streets and Bancroft Way and Hearst Avenue.

“They’re also talking about closing some streets,” said Chair James Samuels.

Funds come from the Highway Safety, Traffic Reduction, Air Quality, and Port Security Bond Act of 2006, which California voters approved on Nov. 7, 2006, when they endorsed Proposition 1B. The specific program involved is the Trade Corridor Improvement Fund.

Just where the city would get funding for upgrading the overcrossings and grade crossings remains an open question, with the railroads unlikely to provide any of the cash, said Commissioner David Stoloff, though federal funds to supplement state funding were possible within the next three years.

“The message is that we need to be involved in the planning process,” he said.

Sanderson said there has been talk of reinvigorating a multi-jurisdictional planning group that had been involved early in the planning process “and becoming more proactive,” joined by all the impacted communities.

Merilee Mitchell, a former city council candidate who often speaks during the commission’s public comment sessions, said that unlike Berkeley Design Advocates, she doesn’t want to see a joint powers group created because “they all involve the seven key groups,” agencies that include the Air Quality Management District, the Association of Bay Area Government, and the Congestion Management Agency.

With a potential change in West Berkeley zoning regulations already under discussion by the commission, a major change in rail traffic, which could involve the railroad taking more land for right-of-way and reduced traffic access, adds yet another wrinkle to the complex policies of a part of the city under increasing development pressure.

For more on the issue, see the Port of Oakland’s web pages at: www.portofoakland.com/maritime/tcif.asp.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s section on Proposition 1B projects is here: www.mtc.ca.gov/funding/infrastructure.

The California Transportation Commission’s pages are here: www.catc.ca.gov/programs/tcif.htm.

Richmond woes

Meanwhile, some Richmond residents and City Councilmember Tom Butt are sounding alarms about BNSF's plans to up the number of mile-long supertrains running along its line through that city.

The railroad has filed a request for expedited action with the Department of Transportation in Washington to allow the company to expand the number of so-called “intermodal” trains through the city—freights carrying containers plucked from ships and trucked to rail cars atop when they are shipped across the country.

A decision by the board means that, effective Monday, the rail line has been forced to redirect from one to two of the lengthy intermodal trains through Richmond rather than along the main Union Pacific Line.

That in turns means that people who need to cross the grade crossing in neighborhoods like Marina Bay may be forced to wait until the long, slow trains have passed—already a subject of much irritation from existing traffic.

Unless Washington approves the BNSF request, Richmond residents can expect even longer delays.