Train delays see increasing complaints
Freight trains crossing the border into Blaine are being x-rayed for security reasons, but this procedure is generating complaints from the community about traffic delays and public safety.
Currently all freight trains are being x-rayed by a rail Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS), according to officials, near the junction of Bell Road and Peace Portal Drive. The VACIS used to be located near Marine Drive in downtown Blaine; however, due to complaints about delays, it was moved to its present location, which seems to be causing even more complaints.
�It�s really starting to affect Blaine,� council member Bruce Wolf said about the train delays during Monday evening�s city council meeting. �We need to take some action on it. I think it�s a safety hazard. It�s backing up traffic a lot and it�s affecting the whole area.�
Bob Christianson, owner of Pacific Building Center, agreed with Wolf, and said a traffic study completed several years ago concluded 20,000 vehicles were driving through that intersection every day.
�It (traffic) is getting really bad. It sometimes happens up to seven times a day. They (the trains) come at all different times, and when they do, everything just stops,� he said.
According to officials, the train is allowed by law to stop traffic for a maximum of five minutes, but complaints from the community state those delays are sometimes up to an hour. And what�s more irritating than the delays, residents say, is that often much of the train has crossed the intersection except for four or five freight cars, which then proceed to roll backwards and forwards.
When asked if the location of the VACIS station is causing the train delays, or if the station could be moved to ensure traffic would not stop, Mike Milne, spokesperson for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) said he was unaware of the problem and would speak with local officials.
�The rail VACIS avoids the need to do an inspection,� Milne said. �We have VACIS in lieu of 100 percent full inspection.�
Full inspection, he said, would involve border patrol officials examining the materials of each and every freight car crossing the border, a time consuming task. The VACIS machine takes an image of each freight car which allows officials to examine the train without unloading all of its contents, Milne said.
Blaine police chief Mike Haslip said the department has received numerous complaints over the last few months regarding the traffic delays, and the delays are because of increased security. �They�re doing 100 percent inspection (through VACIS) on all freight trains,� Haslip said about the delays. �They are finding people on trains that they weren�t finding before.�
When asked if the police department can cite the train for time violations, Haslip said they could not. �The city attorney has advised us those laws are null and void,� he said, adding the federal right of way regarding railroads supercedes a Blaine city ordinance that historically cited train conductors.
In response to these increasing numbers of train delays and complaints, the city of Blaine is planning to address the issue with both federal, state and railroad officials.
�They took a bad situation at Marine Drive and made it even worse,� city manager Gary Tomsic said at Monday�s council meeting.
The city intends to contact the railroad, as well as the state and federal agencies involved with the issue and invite them to Blaine to meet with city officials, Tomsic said, possibly during a city council meeting.
In addition to the delays for travelers, there are public safety concerns. �What if there was a fire?� Wolf asked. �The fire department wouldn�t be able to get through.�
According to Tomsic, when trains block the Bell Road and Hughes Street crossings for long periods of time, emergency vehicles would not able to respond in a timely manner should an emergency arise.
�It is also a very significant inconvenience for people which is discouraging them from using the Bell Road route,� he said.
Students have also been affected, as both inbound and outbound school buses have been stopped in traffic, according to Carl Wagelie, transportation director for the Blaine school district.
�It�s been very inconvenient for us, and the community as a whole is being really affected. Last week it was really bad. At least three days we were late for school, trying to get in, in the morning,� he said, adding bus drivers on outbound routes have returned to the district 20 minutes late into their shifts and parents have called complaining about the delays.
In an effort to combat the problem, Wagelie said he spoke with a Burlington Northern railroad official who would look into it; however, Wagelie has yet to receive word back.
When asked if the schedule or route could be adjusted to avoid the train delays, Wagelie said it would be difficult to change the school program when there�s no definite train schedule. �The trains come at all times,� he said.
Peg Fearon, area port director, was out of the office this week and could not be reached for comment. However, Jay Brandt, the assistant port director for trade operations, said he could not comment just yet on the subject. As of press time, officials were still collecting additional information, he said.
Officials from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad could not be reached for comment.