City expresses ire over VACIS station and traffic delays

Published on Thu, Oct 25, 2012 by Brandy Kiger

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The Swift railway stop just south of Blaine city limits isn’t much to look at. In fact, if you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it, along with the nondescript building that houses the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s vehicle and cargo inspection system (VACIS). But its impacts are felt across the city.

When trains approach the Swift stop, they are slowed to a 5 mph crawl to pass through the VACIS, a gamma ray imaging system that is used on every cargo train that crosses the border. It uses radiographic images to allow inspectors to examine the contents of the containers and cars to verify shipping manifests and to expose hidden compartments containing contraband or other potentially hazardous materials.

During inspections, city officials say these slow-moving cargo trains are often backed up for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, depending on their length. They create serious traffic snarls on Hughes Avenue and Bell Road, which are cut off by the blocked tracks. “It’s a potentially dangerous situation,” Mayor Harry Robinson said, noting that the VACIS was put there as a matter of convenience, and the city never had a say in the matter.

Blaine Police Chief Mike Haslip agreed that the train backups caused everything from
inconveniences to potential hazards,noting that some neighborhoods become completely locked in with no exit route when the trains are stalled. “It’s unfortunate that it was placed where it was. The problem is that there’s no technology at that crossing that you can remotely access,” Haslip said, and that’s detrimental from an emergency services point of view. “You don’t know until you get there,” he said.

While local responders can potentially adjust to the train’s presence, it’s harder when units from the county get involved. There are five advanced life support units in Whatcom County, and if they get called in and are unaware that a train is being inspected, it means trouble.

Over the summer, the situation hit close to home for Robinson, who lives in Semiahmoo. His wife had a medical emergency and needed treatment. While local medics were able to get to her, her situation necessitated that an ALS unit from the county be involved. The paramedics responded, only to get stuck on Bell Road waiting for the train to pass. The response time was 25 minutes, a significant increase over the county’s average. “It was an extremely painful situation for my wife. If it had been a life-threatening situation, she would have died,” Robinson told members of the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Project steering committee at their meeting on October 18.

He also added that because of the inconsistent schedules of the cargo trains, residents have no way of knowing they should seek an alternate route. During morning traffic times, cars can be backed up 60 at a time, Robinson said, and if a bus ends up at the end of that, the students suffer.

Close to 50 percent of the students coming from that area are on assisted lunches, according to Haslip, and rely on the school to provide breakfast. If they get stuck at the rail crossing because of a train inspection, they arrive late and miss that meal.
Robinson stressed it is an issue that needs to be addressed if the Cascade Rail Corridor project is going to be implemented in the near future.

While Blaine city leaders are eager to throw their hat in the ring to gain a potential rail stop as part of the project, a route that would create intercity rail service from Vancouver to Portland, they remain cautious as to the impacts such a decision would have. More trains will mean more wait times on Hughes Avenue and Bell Road if the VACIS isn’t moved before increased Amtrak service begins.

John Sibold, state rail and marine director, said that while they are sympathetic, it is a federal issue and must be pursued through those channels. Mike Milne, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said that they would be looking into the matter and addressing the questions and concerns of the community.