Railroad company found guilty of crime in Richmond
By Karl Fischer
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 10/22/2010 03:34:20 PM PDT
Updated: 10/22/2010 03:34:20 PM PDT
A Superior Court judge found the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad guilty of a misdemeanor crime Friday for blocking street crossings in Richmond longer than necessary one day in 2008.
City motorists, who complain regularly about lengthy waits behind long freight trains, can expect the decision to add a layer of local accountability for an industry normally well-shielded from such concerns by federal law, the city prosecutor said.
"It means the railroad is not above the law," Trisha Aljoe said. "Their attitude is, 'We can do what we want.' Well, they can't."
A BNSF representative said the railroad was assessing its legal options, including appeal.
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Edward Weil issued a written ruling after hearing arguments in September and October, stating that "the blockage was caused by defendant's decision to send two trains to the ... intersection, knowing that there was a reasonable chance that the first train would receive a red light."
The second of two mile-long freight trains headed to the Port of Oakland then stopped, blocking two busy south Richmond streets for about an hour on Dec. 16, 2008.
State law requires trains to clear intersections within 10 minutes unless the operator cannot foresee or prevent a longer delay. The guilty verdict from Weil, who heard the case in lieu of a jury, means the railroad faces the standard range of potential penalties for a misdemeanor conviction: A fine
of up to $1,000, probation, and as many as six months in county jail.
Aljoe, a Richmond City Attorney's Office employee, said she expects no jail time for anyone involved in the case. Rather, she hopes for a fine and probation for the railroad that would create a legal lever to compel more conscientious railroading along a spur of track that spans several neighborhoods.
Richmond filed the criminal complaint in 2009. The railroad argued that federal law governing the operation of railroads pre-empted such criminal cases in state court. But an appellate panel of the Contra Costa Superior Court ruled this year that the case could proceed.
Weil again found that the pre-emption argument did not apply in this case, and found BNSF guilty. Aljoe argued successfully that BNSF did not do all it could to prevent the delay.
While the Richmond Pacific Railroad, a short line, operates the track in question, BNSF also uses it to deliver its freight trains to a junction with a Union Pacific line that runs to Oakland.
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 the day in question, 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.
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.
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 court scheduled a sentencing hearing for early November.
Contact Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/kfischer510.