Thetrains in Blaine lay mainly stopped

Published on Thu, Jun 30, 2005 by eg Olson

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The trains in Blaine lay mainly stopped

By Meg Olson

Kirk Fredrickson, the rail planning and policy coordinator for the state department of transportation, came to Blaine to tell city council members about plans to improve the Swift railroad siding.
He left with a clear message the city would rather see the millions slated to improve mobility south of the city spent getting trains to stop blocking city streets.

“I don’t want to shoot the messenger,” said city manager Gary Tomsic at the June 27 city council meeting. “The perception that things have gotten better is only because we got tired of complaining.” Answering a question from council member Bonnie Onyon regarding whether the improvements would reduce wait times at the Bell Road and Marine Drive rail crossings, Fredrickson said they would not. His office understood the problem had been “decreased somewhat,” he said. Tomsic and audience members gave him plenty of evidence the situation was not getting better.

“There are still major problems,” Tomsic said. “The trains sit on the track for an hour at a time and when they do decide to go they just crawl. The traffic at Bell Road backs up probably a mile.” Pam Christianson, co-owner of Pacific Building Center adjacent to the Bell Road rail crossing said the minimum wait time was 10 minutes as southbound trains slow for inspection by the rail Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) installed south of the city limits by the federal bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in September 2003. “If they would just move it half a mile south it wouldn’t affect Bell Road,” she said, since the VACIS location was approximately one half mile south of the city and the average train was one mile long.
Fredrickson said his department could not change the location, and CBP would not. “It’s their decision it will stay in its current location for a number of reasons,” he said “The movement of freight traffic is governed under federal mandate. Combine that with the requirements of homeland security and the state of Washington has no say.”

CBP public information officer Mike Milne said the VACIS machine was where it needed to be, and suggested the city needed to pursue Congressman Rick Larsen’s 2004 suggestion that an overpass would be the best solution for the Bell Road intersection. “CBP has no intention of moving the equipment,” he said. “The location is the most effective place to carry out our mission.” He added his department monitors the time the trains block the crossing and the average is currently 10 minutes. In addition, he said they were in radio communication with train personnel so the train could be cleared from the track if emergency vehicles needed to get through.

“From a local standpoint we see $12 million spent on a siding and we were told it was too expensive when we wanted to get the VACIS moved,” Tomsic said.

Fredrickson said the improvements to the Swift siding had won $3 million in federal funds, which was matched by the state legislature. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railway has estimated the cost of improvements between $9 and $12 million and “there is some expectation BNSF will contribute as well,” he said.

The funds will pay to move the main line east and add additional sidings to the west. “We’ll stay right in the footprint there,” Fredrickson said. The improvements would improve freight mobility and alleviate delays for passenger trains, which are now being held when the single rail line is filled with a train being further inspected by CBP after VACIS inspection and the single siding is already holding a train. “The rail line is a single track with a lot of traffic,” he said.

His department specifically wants to see passenger train delays eliminated. “We’re losing customers,” Fredrickson said. “Right now if there’s something in the VACIS machine and a train in the siding where does that passenger train go?” he said, adding the trains had been delayed for up to two hours. “We need to seek remedies to make it a viable service in the future.”

Will Blaine see that service stop here in the future, asked local dentist Patrick Rooney from the audience? The answer was probably not. “Right now we are keeping our station stops limited,” Fredrickson said. “We are trying to build a high speed inter-city
service.”