WASHINGTON Every year for a decade, organizers of Sacramento’s Kaiser Permanente Women’s Fitness Festival took care of an important detail without much difficulty: asking Union Pacific Railroad permission for runners to cross the train tracks that separate midtown from downtown.
Kim Parrino, the event’s race director, put in the request to the railroad for safe passage for about 4,000 participants in a June 5K and half-marathon back in September.
She got the return call two weeks ago. And for the first time ever, the answer was no.
“It was a very short conversation,” she said.
Parrino was forced to cancel the half marathon portion of the fitness festival and reroute the 5K so it doesn’t cross the Union Pacific track.
“We have a beautiful downtown area, and we can’t run through it,” she said. “We’re cut off.”
Organizers of other sports events in Sacramento are concerned that the nation’s largest railroad may give them the same answer, forcing them to reroute or cancel more races. It could threaten the California International Marathon, which brings 14,000 runners and millions of dollars to the Sacramento-area economy, and could affect the ability of the city to host future events.
Runners in CIM start in Folsom and cross the tracks on L Street, ending for a postcard picture finish at the state Capitol.
“The policy shift is something that presents significant challenges,” said Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission.
Though the railroad won’t elaborate on what prompted its change in policy, Sophia said the difficulties began two years ago, a few months after the fatal collision of a Union Pacific train and a veterans parade float in Midland, Texas, in November 2012.
“I do believe it’s a safety issue,” Sophia said. “That’s understandable.”
Organizers of the Texas parade never told the railroad that their route would cross its track, and a train slammed into a parade float at 60 mph. Four veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were killed, having pushed their spouses out of harm’s way seconds before impact.
Though the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the parade’s organizers and found Union Pacific to be in compliance with federal law, 43 survivors and family members of crash victims sued the railroad. Union Pacific reached a confidential settlement with 26 of them in January. In February, a Texas judge dismissed a lawsuit by the remaining 17.
Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said the railroad makes decisions about whether to grant safe passage on a case-by-case basis. He offered no specific reasons for the company’s change in policy on safe passage for Sacramento events or who changed it.
“We asked officials to reroute their race due to safety concerns for event participants,” he said.
Rail transportation is federally regulated, giving state and local officials little say over how railroads operate. Railroad rights-of-way are privately owned property, and organizers of events that intersect with railroad tracks are obligated to seek permission to cross.
In addition to safety issues, there are business costs. Idling trains for hours at a time can delay freight shipments. Hunt said that Union Pacific, which has a parallel route that avoids the middle of Sacramento, does not reroute trains for special events.
Last year, the railroad didn’t grant safe passage for the California International Marathon until November, a month before the race.
Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat, helped resolve last year’s impasse and encouraged the railroad to work with Sacramento to find a safe way to hold events.
“Events such as the Women’s Fitness Festival and the International Marathon are important to our community and our economy,” she said in a statement this week.
The California International Marathon has been run every year for 32 years. But the Union Pacific track presents a barrier. Major east-west streets in Sacramento cross the railroad at ground level, and there are no overpasses or underpasses.
“It’s very hard to do much in the downtown corridor without coming in contact with those tracks,” said Scott Abbott, executive director of the Sacramento Running Association, which founded the California International Marathon in 1983.
The race had a close call in 2003, when a train crossed the marathon route during the previously arranged safety window.
“We weren’t prepared for that,” Abbott said.
Last fall, even though organizers of the Mill Race Marathon in Columbus, Ind., made arrangements with a local railroad in advance, a train made an unexpected appearance.
Video footage shows runners scrambling to beat the slow-moving train. When it stopped, some climbed between the cars. The few police officers on hand could do little to stop it.
Just last week, a similar problem beset the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race in France. When the gates came down at a railroad crossing, many competitors darted around them in front of a high-speed passenger train.
No one was injured in these incidents, but the combination of focused athletes and trains that need as much as a mile to stop can lead to tragic consequences.
“A lot can go wrong, even with the proper precautions,” said Steven Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals & Events Association, whose group participated in the NTSB investigation of the Texas accident.
According to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit rail safety education group, California led the nation last year in railroad crossing fatalities involving trains and cars, with 33. More people were killed while walking across or on railroad tracks in California than any other state, with 101 deaths and 53 injuries, according to federal statistics.
Abbott said the Sacramento Running Association has rerouted every other event it holds to avoid crossing the railroad tracks, but moving the CIM course has too many downsides. Rerouting the race would require adjusting the mileage and could potentially disrupt local traffic and inconvenience participants who are staying in downtown hotels.
“With the numbers of people that we have and the amount of time we impact at the finish area, the Capitol grounds are really the only acceptable place to finish on a Sunday morning in Sacramento,” he said.
Schmader, whose office, coincidentally, is in the old Union Pacific station in Boise, Idaho, said Sacramento leaders should come together to stress the importance of the marathon.
“Everybody would hate to see a good event go away or changed to its detriment,” he said.
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