Caltrans surveys Sacramento sites for new railyard

08/04/2013 12:00 AM

08/05/2013 11:01 AM

It's been nearly 15 years since the last shop "gangs" punched out for good at Sacramento's downtown railyard, ending an era of train building and repair in the central city that began in the 1860s.

"Generations of Sacramentans fed their families working for the railroad," said Bill George, who produced a documentary film about the building of the transcontinental railroad from Sacramento to Donner Summit.

Now some railroad jobs may be coming back.

The California Department of Transportation, which oversees much of the state's intercity rail service, is aiming to create a new working railyard in Sacramento's urban core to maintain Amtrak's fleet of Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin Corridor passenger trains.

The vacant sites Caltrans is eyeing include one next to Sutter's Landing Regional Park along the American River and another in east Sacramento next to Business 80, the same spot where former state treasurer Phil Angelides plans to build hundreds of single-family homes.

Caltrans officials understand both sites could prove controversial with residents and city officials, but say they meet the department's requirements: large swaths of open land near Sacramento's downtown train station.

The 240-acre historic downtown railyard, adjacent to the train station, is undergoing a major toxic cleanup and is slated for eventual redevelopment with thousands of housing units, shops, offices, entertainment venues and cultural institutions.

Caltrans rail chief Bill Bronte said a new railyard at that site seemed like a poor fit with the city's plans for the old downtown railyard – even though it was once the city's industrial hub.

"Bringing in a facility where train horns sound early in the morning and locomotives move at night would take away from what the city is attempting to achieve there," he said.

In contrast, the east Sacramento site under consideration already has a "sound wall" in the form of an elevated rail line enclosing it, Bronte said.

The city's other former railyard, near Sacramento City College, closed in the 1980s and also underwent a massive cleanup. Construction started there last week on the streets and utilities for a planned housing and retail development called Curtis Park Village.

Bronte said the growing popularity of passenger rail and a big increase in the number of locomotives and coaches that make up the Amtrak fleet are pushing the department's Oakland maintenance facility beyond capacity.

"We have seen a massive growth in ridership on all of our corridors," he said.

In the past several years, Caltrans received federal and state allotments of $210 million to buy six new locomotives and 53 rail cars, including 30 for Northern California, Bronte said.

"We don't have room here for 30 additional cars to do normal maintenance," Bronte said at Caltrans' Oakland railyard, the only Amtrak maintenance facility in the northern part of the state.

'A better living'

Sacramento, he said, is the logical place to build a new railyard. Its downtown train station is the terminus for both the Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquin Corridor lines, and large parcels of land sit near the train tracks not far away from the station. The proposed railyard needs to be close to the station to avoid excessive costs in crew time and fuel of moving trains back and forth, Bronte said.

"I'm a Sacramentan," he said. "It makes the most sense to put it there. You're bringing clean jobs and good jobs."

The Oakland railyard employs about 140 mechanics, electricians, sheet metal workers and other skilled employees who earn an average of about $28 an hour, Caltrans officials said. About 100 engineers, conductors and other train crew members also call the base home, they said.

Sacramento would likely have a similar workforce and pay scale, officials said, but housing costs here are much lower than in the pricey Bay Area.

"You'd have a better living, there's no doubt," said Rocky Bethel, the Oakland facility's general foreman.

Bethel gave a Bee reporter a tour of the Oakland facility last week. It provided an idea of what a new Sacramento railyard might look like.

The facility covers 12 acres next to the Nimitz Freeway in an industrial area of freight train tracks and recycling yards near Oakland's Inner Harbor. Buildings include a covered shed the length of three football fields where trains pull in to be refueled, inspected and stocked with food and other supplies.

On Wednesday, a two-tiered California Zephyr train, with two locomotives and a dozen cars, was readied for its trip across the Rocky Mountains to Chicago. Compressed air vented noisily from brake lines; air conditioners hummed from the dining car.

The other major structure is a heavy maintenance facility the size of an airplane hangar where mechanics repair diesel engines and replace the massive wheel assemblies of train cars.

Workers walked under the cars and locomotives to replace brake shoes in service bays lined with lights. Outside, a Capitol Corridor train idled on the tracks, waiting to start its run at nearby Jack London Square, heading for Sacramento.

Transportation officials insisted modern railyards are governed by a strict framework of environmental regulations and are much cleaner than historic railyards.

"If we spill a quart of anything we report it," said Robin Reynolds, facility engineer at the Oakland site.

'A tremendous beehive'

Whether such a facility is viable in east Sacramento or near a major city park remains a big question.

Caltrans said it is still in the early planning stages and is studying both locations. Right now, the department does not favor one site over the other, Bronte said.

He said another possibility includes McClellan Park, the former Air Force base turned industrial park in North Highlands.

In Sacramento, city officials and neighbors say they need to learn more about the proposal before forming firm opinions.

City Councilman Steve Cohn, whose district contains both sites under evaluation, initially expressed strong opposition to putting a railyard near Sutter's Landing Regional Park, which he has championed. But after meeting with Caltrans officials last month, he said he could see how a deal might be struck to build the railyard while expanding the park along the riverfront.

The parcels are owned by various entities, including a family trust, he said.

"It's well over a $200 million investment," Cohn said. "It's a sign of the success of intercity passenger rail service, and Caltrans seemed open to working with the city."

Megan Norris, vice president of Angelides' Riverview Capital Investments, said her group still thinks housing is the best fit for a crescent of land commonly known as Centrage, after a failed high-rise development there.

The 48-acre site, owned by developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, is bordered by the elevated rail line and the busy Capital City Freeway. Angelides' group is planning to build 328 single-family homes there in a development it calls McKinley Village.

"We are moving full-bore ahead," Norris said.

Angelides' plans still need to win city approval, however. And the leader of one group that opposes the housing development, primarily because of the traffic it could generate on the area's leafy streets, said the railyard proposal might merit consideration.

"We sure want to know about this," said Ellen Cochrane, who heads East Sacramento Preservation, a neighborhood group. The potential for pollution from a railyard worries some group members, Cochrane said, but the potential for high-quality jobs holds an appeal.

"It's a job creator, and not just temporary construction jobs," she said.

George, the railroad filmmaker, said railyards are "just a tremendous beehive of activity" that remind him of a steel mill he once worked in.

"There's no doubt that the type of capital expenditures a railroad makes are just incredible," he said. "And the high-wage jobs it would bring would be significant to any region that would house it."

Call The Bee's Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.

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