|Trains Slow Drivers in Richmond
May 9, 2003
RICHMOND - Those who live or work in the Marina Bay district know the odds are good that they will get stopped on their way in or out of town for up to 30 minutes.
That's how long it takes for mile-long Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains to chug through the area's main egress at speeds of 5 mph to 10 mph. It happens five times a day, blocking intersections along Marina Bay Parkway.
"You can't get out," said Geri Brown, chairwoman of the neighborhood council. "There's no way for fire or police to get in. It's really quite frightening."
Two other rail companies, Union Pacific and Richmond Pacific, also use the tracks.
BNSF won a contract six months ago to transport trailers and double-stacked cargo containers for the Port of Oakland, putting extra-long trains into service, bumping the number of daily roundtrips from two to five.
The blockages add to the waits drivers experience at other times of the day when the trains are switching, and when shorter trains pass through.
City and county officials have pressed the railroad to limit the number of stored cars or to adjust the track to allow the trains to speed up. But they learned this week that there is little recourse short of an act of Congress.
"This is an emergency health and safety issue," said Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, whose resolution calling for a speedy fix passed the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. "Think of an ambulance not able to get through. Here, there is literally no other way out of town, in a community of 4,000."
To make matters worse, BNSF is planning to double the number of extra-long sets of train cars to eight a day next year, Gioia said.
BNSF terminal manager Nate Murray did not return calls Thursday. Lena Kent, the company's public affairs officer, said she was unaware of a problem.
"We would be more than happy to sit down with city officials or John Gioia," she said.
The California Public Utilities Commission has regulatory authority over switching or stopped trains. Neither may block an intersection for more than 10 minutes. Because moving trains involve interstate commerce, only the Federal Railroad Administration can institute changes, according to Deputy County Counsel Lillian Fuji.
"I'm not sure that's true," said Richmond Councilman Tom Butt, who has pushed for a resolution. "There's a lot of avenues that can be explored. What they need to do first is talk about what (the rail lines) can do voluntarily. If they come up with nothing, then we'll get the sticks out, and there are a number of sticks we can use."
In June, representatives of BNSF and Richmond Pacific will meet with residents to field questions, said Jim Cannon, marketing director for Richmond Pacific, whose blue locomotives are familiar to locals.
The line switches cars for California Oil, Levin Terminal and other companies. With that, Richmond Pacific accounts for only 5 percent of the rail traffic through Marina Bay and ties up any one crossing for only five minutes at a time, Cannon said.
After researching the issue, Fuji reported that the speed limit could be lifted or increased, but only at the discretion of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Kent said track condition determines speed.
Contact Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or firstname.lastname@example.org.