Larsen, Blaine officials discuss trains

Published on Thu, Jan 22, 2004
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Larsen, Blaine officials discuss trains

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen came to town last week to discuss the issue of train crossings with city officials who continue to watch the tracks.

Officials primarily spoke of the rail Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS), equipment installed by the Department of Homeland Security in early September to x-ray all southbound rail cargo. Several months ago, rail VACIS had been the cause of numerous train delays � some reaching as much as 50 minutes � at the junction of Bell Road and Peace Portal Drive. For weeks, Blaine city officials were concerned with the potential problems the delays could cause in Blaine, specifically emergency medical situations, and encouraged state and federal representatives to seek a relocation for the site. However, the train crossing times have greatly reduced over the last two months, most of them between seven and 11 minutes � times normally encountered before the rail VACIS was installed.

U.S. Customs had been timing the crossings, and according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) public affairs officer Mike Milne, the �average rail gamma-ray imaging timeframe ... has been about 10 minutes.�

Blaine city officials are still concerned with emergency medical situations, particularly the area of Hughes Avenue, which is between the railroad tracks and Drayton Harbor, just north of the Peace Portal Drive and Bell Road junction. Larsen said he did not believe moving the site was a financially sound idea. And since the train wait times are at normal times again, Larsen said he would stay involved to ensure there is open communication between the federal, train, and local officials to ensure emergency medical situations are handled properly.

�We did have some conversation with customs to try to resolve this issue. We were looking at different alternatives to figure out how to do this. We did reach an agreement that they would call our dispatch when blocking the intersections,� fire district 13 chief Jim Rutherford said. �Hughes Avenue is a challenge just because there is no other access. I certainly don�t want to downplay it for those who live there, but we have relatively few calls over there.�

He added that the fire department and EMS services have not been greatly impacted by the trains.

As for the train crossings that have delayed Blaine school district schedules, BNSF and school officials established timeframes when school buses are usually crossing the tracks; however, school transportation director Carl Wagelie said keeping the trains off the tracks is pretty unrealistic.

�It�s better, but still needs improvement,� he said about the crossings.

Blaine officials continue to be concerned about the potential of a dangerous cargo being discovered by the radiation detection equipment that will be installed at the rail VACIS site. �They (federal officials) say if they find something, the train will stop. It will be in the middle of town, what then?� mayor Dieter Schugt said.

Milne would not comment on specifics related to radiation detection equipment, but did say �CBP maintains various emergency response plans, they have been communicated to the appropriate individuals, and both the city and county law enforcement agencies have participated in exercises related to radiation incidents.�

Including Larsen and Schugt, BNSF trainmaster Terry Nizs and superintendent Jack Ellstrom attended the meeting, as did Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic, Blaine police chief Mike Haslip, and Blaine council member Bonnie Onyon. Representatives of the Department of Homeland Security did not attend the meeting, and officials were not allowed to enter the rail VACIS site.

�I think the easiest thing would be to build an overpass. That would take care of the issue altogether,� Larsen said, adding that there are currently no funds to build such a structure.

Blaine council member Bonnie Onyon said the meeting was positive. �It was good to see him get first-hand information,� she said.

When asked if the city will continue to work toward a rail VACIS relocation, city manager Gary Tomsic said the city was disappointed that it does not appear the facilities will be moved to a better location.

�The long term solution may involve the construction of an overpass or some type of grade separation at Bell Road. We understand that this is being considered as part of the access study underway for exit 274. This may be a good solution. We will have to see,� he said. �We continue to believe that the facilities were inappropriately sited and should be moved.�

Recently, he continued, operations seem to have improved and �we have had only a few complaints. However, our concern remains that additional inspection equipment, like radiation inspections, will be placed near the VACIS; more trains will be screened during the day and who knows what else will occur in the future. This area will continue to be a serious bottleneck to traffic and a danger for emergency response until it is moved or an overpass is constructed.�

For now, he said, the city can only wait and see what the train crossings will bring to the community.

�We will continue to monitor the VACIS/rail situation. If we have new problems, we will continue to insist that something be done,� Tomsic said.