No official word on implementation of train delay sign

Published on Thu, Dec 4, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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No official word on implementation of train delay sign

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

Two weeks ago, federal officials announced an idea to help residents deal with the increased train delays: a sign. But whether this sign will be implemented � or if the community even wants it � is in question.

According to Patrick Simmons, the head of rail within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, D.C, Blaine port director Peg Fearon created the concept of a posted sign alerting motorists of incoming trains. The information was announced at a November 20 meeting regarding the trains, and noted that should motorists wish to change their local travel plans to avoid the train, this sign would assist them.

When asked if that idea was being pursued, Fearon said �we�re looking into it.� She declined to comment further, noting she would speak through the public affairs office.

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, and is the first of its kind on the northern border, according to officials.

Although officials stated the train delays should not be more than 10 minutes, the Blaine community has experienced waits between 15 and 50 minutes. Because of these timeframes, local officials and residents � publicly thankful for the security measures and work of DHS personnel � have aired concerns regarding emergency medical situations, school bus schedules, and the fact that the one road connecting east and west Blaine is increasingly blocked.

Some community members would like to see a train delay sign implemented, but others not so much.

Suzanne Smith, a Blaine resident, said she would like to see a sign as it would help her schedule. �I think that would help me so I don�t get stuck here, and everyone else that crosses this crossing and gets stuck a lot,� she said. �I think a sign would be good, because then I can cross this crossing and not worry when I come back a few minutes later if it�ll be backed up.�

City manager Gary Tomsic disagrees with the idea, stating that the residents of Blaine and Birch Bay don�t need a sign telling them about delays.

�They (residents) already know about them (delays). We have a difficult enough time getting people into Blaine. Such a sign would only encourage them to take alternative routes and avoid coming into town altogether,� Tomsic said. �I can�t see any useful purpose for the signs. They will only aggravate us further. The fact that they would put up a sign is another admission that they have created a problem for the community. Why not just move the VACIS?�

Bruce Wolf, the Blaine city council member who initially voiced concerns about the train delays back in September, said he agrees that a sign would only exacerbate the problem.

�It makes me think that despite two town meetings, we have yet to impress upon the railroad and federal officials what a serious and potentially dangerous situation they are creating for our town,� Wolf said. �We must work even harder to get the VACIS moved further south where it should have been implemented in the first place.�

Should the rail VACIS location not be moved, Wolf said he forsees significant potential for the train delay problem to become progressively worse, �with more and longer trains.�

Simmons stated at the November 20 meeting that the long delays the Blaine community experienced were a result of a lack of training and the learning curve that comes with new technology.

�During training ... the folks who were providing our inspectors with the training were telling them that they had to stop the locomotive in front of VACIS and search it. I don�t know where they got that from. We never told them to do that,� he said. �Another thing that was happening. One of our inspectors overslept and missed the assignment. The train would stop and wait for him to show up. That�s not gonna happen again. If one of the inspectors doesn�t show up for his job, he needs to really not show up the next day either. He cannot miss an assignment.�

After local port personnel documented three weeks of train activity in November, clocking most delays between seven and nine minutes, federal officials believe the worst is over.

Site location
It has been previously reported in The Northern Light that six sites were studied as a potential rail VACIS location in Blaine. However, assistant port director for trade and operations Jay Brandt said that information was incorrect and confused with other VACIS details.

�There are six sites along the northern border where VACIS will be,� Brandt said. �And only two sites were studied in Blaine.�

Those two sites were the current location just south of Bell Road and Marine Drive, a site that was not chosen because of the amount of pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Local federal officials said that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials chose the current location. In response, WSDOT officials say the site was picked because of a $3 million Swift Siding project constructed there. The project, according to Senator Patty Murray�s office, allows for trains to be inspected without restricting the main line.

In October, Murray secured an additional $3 million for Swift Siding at the border crossing so that BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and Amtrak trains can be inspected and not restrict access to other freight or passenger rail trains. In addition, requested and received $9.8 million for construction of a new border station at the Blaine border, according to Murray�s office.

The Northern Light was scheduled to have an interview with Trevor Hoffman, the director of interdiction and security within the office of field operations, to discuss the potential sign and VACIS location; however, through a federal spokesperson, Hoffman cancelled. Numerous contacts made to the Department of Homeland Security public affairs office were not returned as of press time.

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