Increased train traffic creates troubles for first responders

Published on Wed, Jul 9, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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With flashing lights and blaring sirens, emergency vehicles can bypass traffic, run stoplights and exceed speed limits in order to save lives, but even emergency vehicles have to wait for trains at rail crossings. Freight rail traffic is on the rise in northwestern Washington, and local emergency responders are searching for ways to keep their responses timely.

At the regular meeting in June, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue commissioners and chiefs discussed an emergency call in May that was delayed by a train at the Blaine Road crossing. The call was for stroke-like symptoms, and the ambulance 

The train had slowed to five miles per hour to pass through the vehicle and cargo inspection system scanner, a gamma ray imaging system used to check the contents of every train that passes through the U.S./Canada border. Operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the scanner is located half a mile southeast of the Blaine Road crossing. Every freight train that passes through the border must slow down to be scanned for illicit cargo, creating delays at Marine Drive, Hughes Avenue and Blaine Road that can last 15 minutes or longer.

Many of the trains that pass through the scanner are more than a mile long. A satellite image of the area used on Google maps shows a train near the intersection with 120 cars stretching 1.3 miles. A train of that length moving at five miles per hour takes 15 minutes to pass, which is a long time to wait for help during a medical emergency or fire.

“The unfortunate thing is, we don’t have any other option,” said North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) district chief Ron Anderson. “We could go around to Loomis Trail or Birch Bay-Lynden Road, but by the time we made it all the way around, the train would probably be there.”

Train delays have been a topic of discussion for decades.

“It’s been going on as long as I’ve been here, which is 20 years,” said NWFR chief Henry Hollander. “The only difference is there are more trains now than ever before.” 

One reason for the increase in rail traffic is coal trains headed to B.C. and Bakken crude oil shipments from North Dakota.

“We heard at our operations meeting that the trains are going to increase; we’re going to be getting more of the Bakken crude oil that’s going to be coming through our area, so the situation won’t be getting any better,” Anderson said.

A recent traffic count released by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) showed that five trains per week pass through Whatcom County carrying Bakken crude oil destined for refineries in Ferndale and Anacortes. These trains add to the average of 15 freight and passenger trains that already pass through Blaine on a daily basis, according to a 2010 study by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The track through Blaine is an R1 freight rail corridor, meaning more than 10 billion pounds of freight cargo pass through Blaine every year.
“We are going to continually encounter delays as our community grows and our responses increase,” Anderson said. “At some point, the community is going to have to look into constructing an overpass. Another option would be to move the scanning equipment farther south towards Birch Bay-Lynden Road, which would allow the trains to get through the Blaine Road crossing faster,” Anderson said.
A spokesperson for CBP returned calls, but couldn’t comment as to whether moving the scanning facility would be feasible because he was unsure if CBP owns the building or if it is owned by BNSF.

With Bakken crude shipments on the rise, there are also major safety concerns for the communities through which the shipments pass. A 73-car train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, causing an explosion that killed 47 people. Oil coming from the Bakken formation in North Dakota contains more combustible gases than normal crude oil, making it highly volatile, according to a study by American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

The Whatcom County Division of Emergency Management (DEM) is in the preliminary stages of refining the countywide hazardous materials response plan to deal with all forms of railway emergencies, from passenger train derailments to oil spills and explosions.

“There’s more rail traffic through Whatcom County, so we need to spend more time looking at our emergency response planning specific to rail emergencies,” said Kent Catlin, deputy director of the DEM. An exercise to be conducted in the fall will help the DEM produce an action report and an appropriate response plan, which will help local responders identify the resources available to them and a response protocol in case of a rail emergency.