Runners aren’t Union Pacific’s biggest safety concern

The lead pack runs through the fog in Sacramento during the 32nd annual California International Marathon last December.
The lead pack runs through the fog in Sacramento during the 32nd annual California International Marathon last December. Sacramento Bee file

No one wants runners at risk of getting hit by a train, but road races have crossed Union Pacific Railroad tracks in Sacramento without serious incident for years.

Despite that long record of cooperation, the nation’s largest railroad is now getting much stricter about giving permission to race organizers.

For the first time, it nixed the half-marathon of the Kaiser Permanente Women’s Fitness Festival in June and forced the 5K to be rerouted, as Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau reported. Organizers of the California International Marathon in December fear they’ll be chopped next. Last year, UP didn’t give them the all-clear until a month before 6,000 runners crossed the tracks on L Street on the way to the finish line at the state Capitol.

If Union Pacific truly wants to be a good community partner, it needs to work harder to find a way to allow these road races, which are important to area runners and to the local economy. The railroad has parallel tracks that bypass midtown Sacramento, though it says it does not reroute trains for special events.

Scott Abbott, executive director of the Sacramento Running Association, which puts on the marathon, says it is working with Union Pacific on the race and may partner with the railroad to educate people about track safety. In an email response Tuesday, a UP spokesman told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that it is giving the marathon request “serious consideration,” and makes such decisions based on safety and on a case-by-case basis.

It’s no coincidence, however, that safety is a bigger issue after the horrific incident in Midland, Texas, in November 2012, when a Union Pacific train plowed into a veterans parade float, killing four vets. Though federal safety officials cleared the railroad, it was sued by victims’ survivors.

But that situation is completely different. Parade organizers never informed Union Pacific of their route. Here, races have been in place for years and approvals were routine until recently.

Besides, when it comes to safety, UP has bigger worries.

UP trains loaded with crude oil are rumbling through the Sacramento region, and the railroad wants to send two 50-car oil trains a day through Sacramento to the Valero refinery in Benicia. The UP spokesman said the company complies with state law requiring updates every three months on where trains carrying hazardous materials have been running, and that it regularly notifies first responders of such shipments.

Still, Sacramento and Davis leaders are right to insist that an updated environmental study for the Benicia plan require advance notice to emergency responders and that these trains be banned from parking in urban areas.

The danger posed by oil trains seems far more urgent. Safety should always come first, but it doesn’t have to be sacrificed to allow these races.