City staff to seek funding for train delay solution

Published on Thu, Nov 27, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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City staff to seek funding for train delay solution

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

The city of Blaine and members of the community met again with federal, rail and state officials last week to discuss the increasing issue of train delays within the community. But, this time a higher power from Washington D.C. joined the meeting, presenting information and answering questions.

The source of the delays is a result of the recently implemented rail VACIS (Vehicle And Cargo Inspection System) security procedure which x-rays 100 percent of all rail cargo as a means of national security. The rail VACIS site, located about half a mile south of the junction of Peace Portal Drive and Bell Road, was implemented around the first of September, according to officials.

The site is the first of its kind on the northern border and allows all rail cargo to be examined. During the inspection time, train delays have been recorded to be as long as 50 minutes, and emergency situation concerns have been aired within the community for several months.

�I am the head of the rail for the nation,� said Patrick Simmons of the Department of Homeland Security. �We at DHS are committed to protecting the borders and VACIS is the number one tool that allows inspectors to inspect and screen all of the trains coming into the U.S.�

�Yes. 20, 30, 35, 50 minutes - that�s totally unacceptable, we can�t do that,� Simmons said about the train delays. �How can you do that to a town?�

So why is there an increase in train delays? According to Simmons, it�s because the federal government left the local Blaine port officials without adequate training, and because of the new technology there�s a learning curve.

�I believe the problems you�re experiencing were during training,� Simmons said. �To be perfectly honest with you, it�s my fault. We weren�t expecting that at all. We didn�t expect to meet the delays you did. We left Jay (assistant director of trade and operations Jay Brandt) and Peg (port director Peg Fearon) to learn. We should have been up here. It won�t happen again.�

When a train is being x-rayed by the VACIS machine, it travels at a rate of five to seven miles per hour. Following the scan, should there be any cargo inspectors wish to look at further, they inform the train master. �At one point, the locomotive was stopped in front of VACIS,� Simmons said, noting it caused a delay. �That�s wrong, they weren�t supposed to do that.

One of the only times a train should stop on the tracks, he said, is if inspectors see something inside a rail car that poses an immediate serious threat. �An imminent threat, now what that is I don�t know,� Simmons said. �If the VACIS were to ever break, the train would just roll through, it would not stop.�

In addition to the learning curve impact, another delay occurred when an inspector overslept and missed the assignment. �That�s not our job to affect you,� he said.

So what�s the solution to stop the delays? Following Simmons� explanation of VACIS and its procedures, discussion focused on getting an answer to that question. Several people asked if the VACIS location could be moved.

�Mitigation ought to be to move it (VACIS). Let�s move it down the track. It amazes me that such a simple solution can�t be done,� city manager Gary Tomsic said. �Why can�t we all work to get the money to move VACIS? Let�s get it done.�

Simmons said he didn�t believe that moving the VACIS location would be of significant value. �I don�t believe that moving VACIS � will do anything drastically,� he said. �As soon as additional technology becomes available, the train will be able to travel through at faster speeds, but until then we ask for your patience.�

Council member Ken Ely said he wanted to get back to the city manager�s statement. �Let�s get back to Gary�s question. I want to know if we can all work together to move it south,� he said.

�This is not a fight that Customs can fight � Congress tells us what to do,� Simmons said. �Congress brings things to me. I am no more powerful than any one in this room. Congress is the only one who can tell us to pick it up and move it.�

Location study
Discussion also involved potential sites to move the VACIS location to, and Simmons noted that a site survey was completed for the project. Both Marine Drive and the Bell Road crossing were evaluated, he said. The Marine Drive crossing was omitted because of the traffic and pedestrian flow.

Last month, Jay Brandt, the assistant director for trade and operations, said there were six sites involved in a site study, but then stated at last week�s meeting there were only two.

No matter how many sites were studied, what bothers local officials the most is the fact they were never notified of the site or the project study.

�None of us were included,� mayor Dieter Schugt said. �I think that was the thing that disturbed some of us the most.�

Simmons said the site work involved numerous calls and applications with Whatcom County, and the customs service worked with the county.

�All I can tell you is we jumped through every hoop presented by the county,� Simmons said, adding the process took almost a year.

Other solutions
However the project was implemented and who was involved is not the concern at this point, it�s the delays and how to deal with the problem. Officials discussed a possible billboard sign announcing incoming trains and the evaluation of train times as methods to deal with the problem.

Between November 7 and November 20, 41 trains were timed by inspectors. �Since the seventh of this month, the average block was seven to nine minutes,� Simmons said.�The train master tells me that�s the same amount of time as before VACIS.�

The time delays, and the number of trains that were timed by inspectors, were questioned by officials and residents of the community. Some had recorded their own times when stopped on the tracks, noting the date, time and length to which the tracks were crossed.

Council member John Liebert told the audience, �It�s 10 minutes. That�s not going to change folks. That�s not going to matter if you die because you�re on the wrong side of the tracks.�

Federal officials stated that the delays were getting better over time, and the train is going through at five to seven miles per hour, and will likely go faster in the future, thus alleviating the issue.

�We�re hoping they go through at a much quicker pace. That�s what we�re striving to do,� Simmons said. �In the last three or four weeks, there�s been marked improvement ... 22 minutes, 45 minutes, that can�t happen. You have to remember something. That train was the same as prior to VACIS.�

Tomsic and other local officials stated that trains had always been in this town, and it wasn�t until September � when VACIS was installed � that the community had experienced such delays.

�They are the same times as before VACIS,� Simmons said, noting an average train is 6,000 to 7,000 feet, according to the train master. �You have to remember that.�

Fearon, Simmons noted, �came up with a wonderful idea� to put up a billboard stating when the train is coming, so drivers can be made aware of all activities.

�And we will continue to monitor trains at the crossing,� Simmons said. �Your town should not be bothered by this.�

In the meantime, local officials will continue to watch the trains as well and maybe take one of their radar guns to a train and see the speed for themselves.

The question of how emergency medical staff would be addressed and notified of the incoming trains was also mentioned, and staff said they would work with 911 and border patrol to tell local EMS services.

�I will make myself available to anyone in this town,� Simmons said at the end of the meeting. �My number is 202/927-1314.�

City to seek funding
After the meeting, city officials reflected on what was discussed, and unanimously decided to allow city manger Gary Tomsic to move forward with the seeking of federal funding to move the site.

Contact was already made with both Senator Patty Murray and Representative Rick Larsen, and a letter from them both had been sent to Tom Hardy, the director of field operations, on November 14.

�The placement of the VACIS system seems to be ill-advised in that is has caused considerable hardship for the residents of a large part of Blaine who find the main arteries blocked for long periods,� the letter stated. �These blocked roads lead to the downtown area, the schools and emergency assistance facilities. We are particularly concerned about the inability of emergency vehicles to have access to a considerable segment of Blaine residents.�

Tomsic told the council on Monday evening, the train issue is a question of how long the Blaine community would deal with this. If it�s something they want to address, the city will.

�We�ll get more trains and we need to act now. Fight tooth and nail to move the thing south,� council member Bruce Wolf said.

Marsha Hawkins agreed the VACIS site needs to move south, down the tracks. �It�s never been okay, whether Marine Drive or Bell Road. It should have been planned better.�

�I think it�s best to go back to her (Murray),� Dieter Schugt said. So for now, the city council will continue making contact with senator Patty Murray and Congressman Rick Larsen to proceed with moving the rail VACIS site.

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