Richmond prosecutes railroad for blocking intersections
By Karl Fischer
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 09/10/2010 12:10:06 PM PDT
Updated: 09/10/2010 05:05:48 PM PDT
For all those who fume in silence behind their steering wheels, watching rail cars inch across city streets while minutes tick by, the city of Richmond feels your pain.
The City Attorney's Office hopes Burlington Northern Santa Fe will soon feel the pain, too.
In an unusual approach, the city prosecuted the railroad in criminal court this week, claiming a mile-long train illegally blocked intersections for about an hour one day in 2008.
"There's a history of tie-ups at that (train) signal," Deputy City Attorney Trisha Aljoe said. "Our position is that train should never have left the yard. ... There were occurrences over which they had control."
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Edward Weil heard arguments over two days and expects to offer a verdict in early October.
Train tracks crisscross urban communities across the country, and waiting for long freight lines traditionally ranks among the top annoyances of motorists in densely populated neighborhoods. BNSF typically tries to work with cities outside of court to resolve any bad-neighbor complaints, a spokeswoman said. But in this case, discussions did not last long, or go well.
"We believe that we did nothing wrong," BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said. "It's really unfortunate that it has come to this point. It's unfortunate that we couldn't work better together to resolve this issue."
Court documents show that railroad officials were doubly surprised to face a misdemeanor charge in state court, because federal law typically insulates railroads from local court complaints. But, after the city filed the charge in February 2009, a Contra Costa Superior Court appellate panel ruled that nothing in federal law specifically precluded the case from proceeding.
Richmond seeks no fine from BNSF, Aljoe said. But a guilty verdict could create a legal lever to compel more conscientious behavior from rail operators using a four-mile stretch of track that runs through south Richmond. The track crosses Harbour Way South, Marina Way South and Marina Bay Parkway near Interstate 580, running from a BNSF rail yard near Point Richmond to a junction with a Union Pacific line to the east that runs between Sacramento and the Port of Oakland.
While the Richmond Pacific Railroad, a short line, operates the track, BNSF also uses it to deliver its freight trains to the junction. But a Union Pacific dispatcher controls the signal at the junction and manages rail traffic entering that railroad's line, which includes Amtrak passenger trains.
On Dec. 16, 2008, two mile-long BNSF trains at the Richmond yard both received permission from Union Pacific to use its track. But after the first train began the four-mile trek through Richmond to reach the junction, the dispatcher revoked permission to allow other trains to pass.
The first train stopped at the junction, far enough from city streets that it blocked no intersections. But eight minutes after the first left the yard, the second proceeded, only discovering that its path was barred after it blocked both Harbour Way South and Marina Way South. Parties agreed that it took about an hour to back the second train up to the yard, allowing car traffic to pass.
A state law governing rail traffic deems it illegal for trains to block road crossings for more than 10 minutes if the operators could reasonably foresee such a long blockage. Attorneys for BNSF argued both that the circumstance was not foreseeable and that Richmond lacked authority under federal law to prosecute.
Aljoe and her witnesses argued that the operators of the two trains needed only to communicate by radio to avoid the blockage. BNSF employees testified that such communication is not normal procedure.
The judge, who heard arguments in lieu of a jury trial, ordered parties back Oct. 8 for closing statements.
"If a person was on the track and the train had to stop for safety reasons, that's beyond their control," Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt said. However, the scheduling of trains is "an internal thing. Railroads have an obligation to deal with it."
"I'm hoping to get a successful prosecution, and hopefully it'll act as a deterrent," Butt added.
Contact Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/kfischer510. Staff writer Katherine Tam contributed to this report.