Sacramento’s identity as a railroad town can sometimes cause the city and its residents no shortage of grief. Tuesday was one of those days.
A milelong BNSF Railway freight train stalled in midtown during the morning commute, snarling traffic through the heart of the city and forcing motorists to find alternate routes to work. It took roughly two hours before railroad crews were able to repair a broken coupler, enabling the train to resume its journey to Southern California along the Union Pacific-owned track.
The incident underscored the somewhat ambivalent relationship between Sacramento and the railroads that traverse the city.
Sacramento revels in its historic status as the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, and the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento is a major tourist attraction. At the same time, though, the imprint of the rail industry can seem like more of a burden than a blessing.
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The abandoned railyard at the northern end of downtown has been a 240-acre eyesore for two decades. It took many years and millions of dollars to clean up the toxic chemicals left by Southern Pacific, and only now is a private developer poised to begin converting the dusty expanse of ground into a mixed-use project.
And then there’s the impact that freight trains, operating upward of 25 times a day, have on car traffic. The freight tracks running through Sacramento belong to Union Pacific, and the Omaha rail giant operates essentially without any input from city officials. As long as they comply with federal regulations, freight trains have the unimpeded right to travel through towns and cities, according to the Federal Railway Administration.
“We do not have any control, much like we do not control the waterway traffic,” said Sacramento city spokeswoman Linda Tucker in an email.
Concerns about freight traffic intensified in 2014, when city and state officials learned that railroads were planning to haul tanker cars loaded with volatile North Dakota crude oil through Sacramento en route to a Bay Area refinery. The disclosure came a year after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed near a town in Quebec, causing an explosion that killed 47 people. The issue became so controversial that the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads carrying large amounts of Bakken crude to notify state emergency responders about shipments.
The projected major influx of Bakken crude shipments never really materialized in Sacramento, as declines in oil prices made the train deliveries less economical. Nonetheless, state officials have tried to exert more control over potentially dangerous freight trains.
Two months ago, the state established a list of the 25 most hazardous materials carried by train – including butane, chlorine, acids and ammonia – and said it would impose a $45 fee on every rail car carrying one of those materials through the state. The fee, designed to raise money for emergency response efforts, is being challenged in court by the California Taxpayers Association and others but is scheduled to take effect in November.
The cargo on the train that stalled in midtown Tuesday included a tanker apparently carrying liquefied petroleum gas, a form of propane, one of the 25 hazardous materials on the state’s list, said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Huston said he was able to identify the contents of the tanker by its markings.
Despite the presence of liquefied petroleum gas, the decoupling didn’t appear to pose a significant safety hazard, Huston said.
Although freight traffic nationwide has been fairly flat in recent years, according to the Association of American Railroads, the route through Sacramento is increasingly well traveled. Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said the railroad operates 25 to 40 freight trains a day through Sacramento. In 2002, the figure was an average of 19 trains a day.
The Sacramento line “is a critical freight route and main thoroughfare for Union Pacific,” he said in an email.
Tuesday’s incident occurred on what Union Pacific calls the “Sacramento subdivision,” a route that runs north-south through midtown between 19th and 20th streets.
The 87-car train decoupled at around J Street at 8 a.m. Before long, Sacramento police were hearing complaints of automobile traffic backing up from C to T streets.
The congestion caused delays in city garbage collection. Police advised motorists to find alternative routes south of midtown, or take the freeways instead.
Even when trains don’t stall, they can grate on motorists’ nerves as the minutes pass at a blocked intersection. Long freight trains can cause headaches for commuters, police officers, ambulance drivers and others forced to wait.
“It’s part of the daily routine,” said Officer Matt McPhail, spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department. “It’s difficult because the train tracks don’t move. Everybody has to work around them. … They’ve been here a lot longer than we have.”
Still, McPhail said he doesn’t hear fellow officers complaining often about freight trains. Regional Transit’s light-rail service is sometimes considered a bigger nuisance because it runs more frequently, he said.
Sacramento isn’t alone in its frustrations. Sara Feinberg, head of the Federal Railway Administration, acknowledged widespread anger at railroads over long waits at crossings.
“In one anecdote told to me by a fuming member of Congress, a community became so frustrated with a blocked crossing that the local sheriff started writing tickets to the railroad for blocking traffic,” Feinberg said in a speech last November. “I am starting to get these calls all the time.”
Despite their fragile relationship, Sacramento officials have been able to find areas of cooperation with Union Pacific. Last month the two sides agreed on a plan that will allow the city to extend a south Sacramento street by a few blocks, allowing it to cross the Union Pacific tracks near Folsom Boulevard. In return, the city said it will close a lightly traveled portion of C Street, eliminating a point where the street crosses the rail line.