Feeling railroaded

Union Pacific faces irate citizens over accidents

News that the Texas Department of Transportation plans an 18-month study of San Antonio's railroad system didn't allay the concerns of citizens who attended a town meeting last week with representative s of Union Pacific Railroad.

In answer to recent train derailments and other incidents in Bexar County, the Southwest Workers' Union has called for a "moratorium on all hazardous waste transport through the City of San Antonio; an emergency evacuation plan for (designated) communities and schools; (and) public disclosure of all materials carried by Union Pacific per route.

"Neither Union Pacific nor elected officials have taken any concrete action to protect the lives of families, workers and schools in light of the grave tragedies that have needlessly occurred," read literature distributed by Genaro Rendon, co-director of the Southwest Workers' Union.

"You see a lot of lip service," says Rendon. "We want to see action on the ground." The union also has called for designation of slow zones and quiet zones, and for enforcement of safety and environmental standards. A long-term goal would be to re-route the railroad around the city.

Rendon was joined by about 20 protestors who had gathered at the Developmental Services building at Alamo and South Flores streets to demand that UP clean up its act in San Antonio. The protest preceded a town hall meeting organized by District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle to address community concerns regarding the railroad company's recent safety violations that have resulted in accidents that claimed several lives. Several UP employees attended the meeting to answer some of those questions.

The study is to be part of a statewide effort to address safety issues that have surfaced over numerous train-related accidents. The Texas Department of Transportation says it will spend $400,000 for the study, and has asked for another $100,000 from local entities. The San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization will kick in $50,000, and the City and County were asked to contribute $25,000 apiece.

Gilbert Wilson of TxDOT's transportation planning and program division outlined the scope of the San Antonio rail system study at a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. Step one is to inventory and map the railway system and its freight operations, then to identify freight rail conflicts with the area roadways. The study will look at railroading alternatives, and will computer model the railway system.

San Antonio Public Works Director Thomas Wendorf told fellow MPO members that South Flores Street was blocked by a train for 65 minutes on Friday, December 3. "This is a major north-south street. Will this study address the central business district?" he asked. The problem is that when a major artery such as South Flores is blocked for such a long period of time, some neighborhoods will have difficulty in accessing emergency services such as fire and police protection. "I get anecdotal stuff that happens. I want to make sure that gets somehow addressed and incorporated into the model."

"We do real world train operations. A sitting train will show up in the computer," Wilson responded.

District 4 Councilman Richard Perez echoed Wendorf's concern. "I can tell you what intersections are blocked in my district. You won't need a study. How long will the study take and what will we do with the information?"

Wilson said the 18-month study "could recommend anything from adjusting railroad crossings to a full-blown 'move everything' out of town."

Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson, also an MPO member, warned that funding for railway improvements, including moving the entire rail system away from urban areas, could be very costly, and would take about 80 percent participation from the federal government. "The federal government is shrinking its dollars, I don't want to raise any expectations. Let's study this but don't go crazy thinking about what's going to be done."

William J. Bourne of the newly organized "South-Town Organizing Project says residents in his community are "up in arms about the derailments. How can we evacuate 1,700 students from Brackenridge High School," in case of another toxic chemical spill?

Bourne contends that the San Antonio Independent School District currently has inadequate plans for evacuating students from the high school, which is located near a portion of the track where derailments recently occurred. "We have a simplistic proposal, leave 10 buses parked at Brackenridge all the time. We've had two train derailments (in the neighborhood). Now is not the time to formulate a plan on the fly."

One derailment is too much, says Mayor Ed Garza, who recently flew to Washington, D.C. to attempt to meet with officials about the recent railway safety problems. "The goal is to achieve no derailments ... what are we going to do to prevent these from happening again?"

Garza said officials in Washington "told us what we wanted to hear."

According to a safety compliance agreement between Union Pacific Railroad and the Federal Railroad Administration acknowledges that several accidents have occurred in the San Antonio area and in Carrizozo, New Mexico, and that the FRA has "initiated a series of on-site inspections to determine the level of UP employee compliance with UP operating rules and FRA regulations in Houston and San Antonio. "FRA believes that crew compliance with railroad operating rules is not satisfactory."

Garza questioned the safety compliance agreement. "Where's the accountability? It's great to have these words on paper, but what happens if there is non-compliance, and God forbid, if there is another life lost?"

UP spokesman Jim Young assured concerned citizens that "the whole railroad community is just as disturbed about what's going on and they want to fix it." Additional personnel have shipped into San Antonio to help address safety problems. Young says that when railroad crews go to work, they go through pre-flight briefings on "operational conditions, special weather and rail conditions."

UP spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell pointed out that 1,000 UP employees living in San Antonio are equally concerned about the recent incidents. "We want to apologize for the accidents that have upset residents. Union Pacific is also upset about it. There are people working extremely hard and take this extremely seriously. An apology is not enough, but until we're back to safely operating the railroad, that's about all we can do."

Blackwell says train crews now are getting full safety briefings around the clock for at least a year, that UP will spend $25 million to upgrade its tracks in 2005, with another $50 million slated in 2006. UP also is hiring 163 new trainmen, and has promoted 39 engineers in 2004.

Garza said UP is "doing an excellent job of getting on top of this issue, but there are differences on safety standards."

By Michael Cary