Trouble ahead?

Union Pacific Railroad now runs its trains through Chico at a blistering 70 miles per hour, and there is nothing the city and state can—or the federal government will—do about it

Photo By Tom Angel

Question: If a Union Pacific Railroad freight train leaves Redding at 45 miles per hour, how fast will it be traveling when it reaches Chico?

Answer: That train will rush through Chico at an earthshaking 70 miles per hour, ripping through residential neighborhoods to the north and slicing its way across the Chico State University campus—where hundreds of students cross the tracks daily on their ways to and from classes—before zipping past the old Diamond Match property to points south.

Toot, toot.

In less than four years, the speed limit on trains passing through Chico has increased from 25 mph to 70. And there is nothing anyone here can do about it; except, say Union Pacific folks, to make sure you look both ways before crossing the tracks.

But is that enough in a town with a reputation among train engineers as a dangerous run because of drunks, trespassers, abandoned shopping carts and the occasional flaming couch that sometimes end up on the tracks?

Running along the athletic fields on the Chico State University campus, there is a pedestrian/bicycle path that crosses the railroad tracks and heads west along some student apartments. One day last week, News & Review photographer Tom Angel and I visited the path to get photos and a feel for what it is like when a train passes through at 70 mph.

Within five minutes, we heard the horn of an approaching train. When the signal at the pedestrian crossing sounded, students heading to or from class reacted by running across the tracks to avoid a couple-minute delay. The train whooshed by, shaking the ground and rocking on the tracks as it pulled flat cars stacked with lumber, black cylindrical tanks carrying liquid propane and rust-red boxcar loads of Canadian wheat.

Angel and I agreed, based on the turbulence and feel we experienced, that the train had probably passed at 70. We were wrong. Forty minutes later, we heard the approach of a second train. This one came much faster, and its passing was much more violent.

In truth, it was a stunning experience to stand within 20 feet of this massive, thousands-of-tons-heavy machine screaming through the middle of Chico.

There was a feeling that, if you stood too close, you’d be sucked under the wheels by the wind draft the train created. Over the roar of this passing train, we talked to a couple of students who lived in the apartments nearby. They said they’d noticed the increase in speed of the trains over the past few months.

Junior Jessica Schmidt said the shudder of her second-floor apartment, which is about 50 yards from the tracks, has increased noticeably since the trains’ speeds have increased.

“Yeah, it’s really, really scary, especially with the number of kids who cross here everyday,” Schmidt said. “I have to [cross] four times a day, and so do most of my friends.”

Last October, representatives from Union Pacific (UPRR) and the Department of Transportation told former Mayor Dan Herbert that, at the beginning of this year, certain trains passing through Chico would be traveling 70 mph.

“You’ll have to tell your community,” Herbert recalled them saying. “I said, ‘Hold on. You tell them. We don’t want you to [increase the speed], and we’re not going to be the heavies on this.'”

The other members of the Chico City Council, alarmed at the news, also called on Union Pacific officials to explain themselves. But the UPRR folks didn’t get around to attending a local meeting until this past March, three months after the speed increase went into effect.

For good measure, UPRR sent eight representatives, who confidently assured Chicoans by turns that they had nothing to worry about so long as they looked both ways when crossing the tracks. The increase in speed was needed, they said, if trains were to continue to compete with the trucking industry and carry America’s goods to where they needed to go.

And, they added, even though Chico does not directly benefit from freight trains passing through and dropping off or picking up shipments, and hasn’t since Fleetwood Motor Homes closed a few years back, Chicoans do eventually reap the benefits of the modern chemicals and materials these trains cart through town.

At that March 4 meeting, the council learned it had absolutely no leverage against UPRR. And, since the company operates under the protection of the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, the state has no jurisdiction over the trains, either. Even the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has limited powers when dealing with train companies.

It would take an act of Congress, the council was told, to even hope to slow down the speeding locomotives. But the mental image of Rep. Wally Herger serving as Chico’s Superman elicited a collective and spontaneous chuckle from both the council dais and the audience that night.

Union Pacific is no ordinary train company, mind you. It employs 51,905 people and has 38,654 miles of track stretching across 23 states. And the company’s not exactly an upstart, either: Way back in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln directed it to begin the westerly leg construction of a transcontinental railway.

At that March 4 council meeting, Mike Fedora, a deputy regional administrator for the FRA, more or less shrugged his shoulders and gestured to the councilmembers with open palms to indicate the matter was out of his agency’s hands.

“We don’t tell the railroads how to run their business,” he told the council, which pretty much signaled, “Look out Chico: speeding locomotive coming through.”

After Fedora sat down, the folks from Union Pacific admitted to the council that their main reason for increasing the speed was economic. The company, explained UPRR General Solicitor Jeff Assay, competes with the trucking industry and as such must become more efficient. Efficiency, he explained, is attained by going as fast as you can.

In a Feb. 18 letter to Mayor Maureen Kirk, Dan Shudak, general superintendent for UPRR, wrote, “We are continuously working to improve the efficiency of our operations and our service to our customers. In many cases this includes higher train speeds, thereby reducing the amount of time for our trains to deliver the shippers’ cargo.”

But UPRR officials also assured the council that a fast train is a safe train. Derailments, they said, tend to happen when trains change speed. Besides, trains traveling 70 won’t take as much time to get across town and consequently won’t block traffic at the signaled road crossings for long. The public, they said, will learn to live with the increased speeds.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Kirk received a letter from Allan Rutter, the FRA administrator. He explained that the Supreme Court has ruled that federal law preempts local regulation of train speeds.

“Locally established speed limits can result in hundreds of individual speed restrictions along a train’s route,” Rutter wrote. “This would not only cause train delays, but it could actually increase safety hazards. The safest train maintains a steady speed.”

Rutter went on to say that a Feb. 18 track inspection by FRA and UP inspectors determined the track through Chico was in compliance with the FRA’s safety standards.

“However, five minor defective conditions were identified,” he added. “The railroad repaired the defects within an hour of the inspection.”

TIES TO THE COMMUNITY Union Pacific Railroad removed and replaced these old railroad ties last July. Nine months later they are still stacked in piles all along most of the track through Chico.

Photo By Tom Angel

Freight trains now pass through Redding at 45 mph, Red Bluff at 60 and Marysville at 25. Redding and Marysville have bridges the trains must cross; you pass under the one in Marysville just as you enter town on Highway 70. In Red Bluff, according to a firefighter there, his town “has a mean curve” that trains must slow down for to negotiate. (He and a fellow firefighter were under the mistaken impression, however, that the speed limit in Red Bluff was 45.)

But, while Chico is known as trouble and in fact dreaded by engineers forced to deal with drunks, trespassers and the occasional tossed rock or fired pellet gun, there are no physical or topographical impediments that otherwise warrant slower speeds—that is, unless you count the houses and apartments that lie perilously close to the tracks.

Ironically, Union Pacific played a major role a year ago in helping a Chico neighborhood defeat plans to build student apartments near the tracks. A representative from the railroad, Wayne Horiuchi, told the city Planning Commission at the time that his company would not allow a city-required bike path anywhere near its tracks, and to build student apartments so close to the lines is “bad public policy.”

“Once you put students next to a railroad track, you’re going to have problems—I guarantee it,” he said.

On Feb. 18, he wrote to Bob Koch, the city’s risk manager, in response to a letter Koch had sent him with concerns about the increased speed.

“I share your concern as it relates to public safety, but my comments before the Chico City Council and the Sterling Housing Project are still valid,” he wrote. “Whether you have a train that operates at 20 miles per hour, or a train at 70 miles per hour, residential projects that create additional pedestrian foot traffic, or for that matter any additional public trespassers, is a matter of public safety. Unfortunately I was unaware, nor engaged within our company, of the decision to increase train speed.”

Until recently, trains came through Chico at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph. For decades the Southern Pacific Railroad owned the tracks and operated the freight trains through town. In 1995, Union Pacific took over Southern Pacific.

Four years later, in the fall of 1999, Union Pacific announced it was raising the speed from 25 to 35 and, when locals adjusted to that, they would up the speed to 45. Then, last year, the railroad announced that the maximum speed would jump to 55 and in January of 2003 would be pushed to 70. The last two increases shave an additional 90 seconds off the time it takes the trains to get through town.

Records kept by the Department of Transportation show there have been about 35 to 40 derailments in Butte County in the past 20 years. The statistics don’t specify where in the county these trains have tipped over, and a good many of them have spilled their cargo in the Feather River Canyon.

Most derailments, studies say, are caused by faulty or deteriorating railroad ties. And, along the tracks through campus and on into south Chico, there are stacks of old ties lying beside the tracks from work done last summer.

The ties are most likely in good shape. However, Mike Jensen, whose home is close to the tracks, said he was bothered by the fact Union Pacific had allowed the ties, which could potentially be tossed onto the tracks by vandals, to remain for so long.

“They’ve been here since July,” Jensen said.

Even when the trains’ speed limit was just 25, there were a number of deaths and injuries.

Lt. Tony Burdine, of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, said statistics on the number of people killed by trains are not kept, but to his best recollection there has been an average of about one per year in Butte County, with the majority on or near the Chico State campus.

“Some years there are as many as three,” Burdine said. “Whether it be intoxication, wearing stereo headphones while walking on the tracks or suicide. While I can’t give you exact numbers, it is quite treacherous, believe me, along those tracks.”

Deaths along the Chico stretch have ranged from drunks falling asleep on the tracks to at least one student wearing headphones while walking the tracks with his back to the train. A few years back, a Chico co-ed was hit and killed while trying to place a coin on the tracks. About a dozen years ago, a couple, reportedly addicted to drugs, decided one night to commit suicide together by running in front of an oncoming train close to where Dayton Road dead-ends against the tracks.

But the woman, who fell behind during the run to the tracks, apparently changed her mind about ending it all when she saw her boyfriend get crushed and ground up by tons of steel. Instead, she went home and called the police.

Local officials have no idea when the trains are coming through or what they may be carrying.

Chico Fire Chief Steve Brown said he’s never been alerted about possibly dangerous cargo that may be passing through town, but he does have in his office a copy of the 1996 North American Emergency Response Guidebook, which is subtitled, “A guidebook for first responders during the initial phase of a hazardous materials/dangerous goods incident.”

The book classifies hazardous materials and includes a legend explaining what the various placards and signs bolted to the sides of the railcars mean. “The book is what we would use when we respond to a derailment,” Brown said.

According to the Department of Transportation, the volume of hazardous materials moved by rain since 1980 has more than doubled—approximately 1.7 million carloads are shipped along tracks each year.

In 2001, there were 32 rail accidents in the United States that led to the release of hazardous materials. The number of such accidents has fallen by 30 percent since 1990, the DOT reports.

Critics of the speed increase, including those who work for the transportation giant, say that pressure to compete and keep stockholders happy has led to employee layoffs, longer hours and less safety.

“The railroad’s desire is to not have to hire more people,” said Tim Smith, chairman of regional branch of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

“They want to work you to death,” he said. “They want 100-plus hours per week. Compare that to the airline industry, where pilots don’t fly more than 40 hours per month. Yeah, the engineers don’t have to land a plane, but they can create a lot of damage.”

In a letter to the council sent the same day as the March 4 meeting, Smith warned, “There is a history of accidents through this corridor in which pedestrians and automobiles have been involved, unfortunately ending in death and destruction. There have been derailments through this town, as well, littering the area involved with lumber and other materials. This office feels that the increase in speed will cause these incidents to increase.”

In an interview later, Smith echoed the frustration of trying to fight the powerful railroad company.

“We went to Wally Herger about the speed increase,” Smith said. “He was polite and did a lot of glad handing and back slapping. But after about 30 minutes he was like, ‘OK, this has been great, there’s the door.'”

(Union Pacific’s relationship with Congress goes back a long way. In 1872 UP officials reaped $23 million in dividends from a bogus construction company called Credit Mobilier and passed its stock on to influential members of Congress. This incident is recorded on UP’s Web page chronicling the company’s colorful history.)

Smith said he was quite familiar with the tracks through Chico.

“When I was going up there five years ago, it was 25 miles per hour,” he said. “Now they are going from 25 to 70, and they call that safe?

TRAIN SPOTTING A student on her way to classes waits for a Union Pacific freight train to pass the pedestrian/bicycle crossing on the Chico State University campus.

“It’s all about money,” Smith said, “They don’t care about safety unless it doesn’t cost them anything.”

For its part, UNRR says the increase is two-fold and the company would not make the changes if they were not safe.

“The reason is to add capacity to the railroad and reduce the possibility of an accident due to a train incident,” said John Bromley, the UPRR spokesman, from his office in Omaha, Neb.

Bromley explained that a train is like an accordion, in that as it changes speeds it contracts and expands, and the fewer times the conductor has to alter speed, the less chance for derailment.

“As far as the concerns that a train crew can’t stop at a high speed, there really isn’t much difference,” he said. “[Even at slower speeds], by the time the crew can react, it is physically impossible in terms of stopping.”

He said the union’s stated fears for safety are in fact a “desire to protect their own jobs.”

(In January UPRR obtained a temporary restraining order to halt a strike by 8.000 of its employees represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The dispute was over personal-leave days for engineers, new standards for which were imposed after the beginning of the year. The union said the new standards defy the Railroad Labor Act, which says changes in working conditions may not be conducted without notice or without giving each side an opportunity to negotiate. Bromley told CNN that the strike was “completely unanticipated” and that the dispute was “minor.")

“We’re not laying people off to increase profits,” Bromley said in response to Smith’s charges. “We’re doing it to be more efficient. And we are not doing if for the benefit of shareholders.”

In reference to UPRR objections to building student housing near the tracks, Bromley said the company opposes any residential construction near the tracks.

“People build near the tracks, and then we have to hear complaints about train noise,” he said.

He said the public must become more educated about the nature and danger of trains.

“The general public’s basic fear is that faster must be more dangerous,” he said. “Take the simple task of crossing the tracks. There is no increase in danger. It seems pretty easy to look both ways.

“And drivers learn that the train will be on the tracks for a shorter time, so it’s not worth hurrying to beat it at the crossings.”

Still, he admitted, Chico does have a reputation for troubled tracks. “Chico is more troublesome and does have a lot of vandalism on the tracks.”

When asked about the stacks of old railroad ties that sit along the tracks through campus, Bromley explained that job is contracted out to a private firm and had nothing to do with the perception that UP is losing workers through attrition.

However, a group of railroad workers’ families, who call themselves RRESQ (Railroad Employee Safety/Quality), maintains a Web site and often sends e-mails criticizing Union Pacific for its employee relations.

On April 3, it accused Union Pacific of having a history of operating with a shortage of employees. Since the merger with Southern, RRESQ says, UP has “pushed the envelope with manpower shortages” resulting in a “string of accidents that killed several civilians and UP employees, and a mandate by the [National Transportation Safety Board] and FRA to hire more men. They did, but when the watchdogs turned away Union Pacific quietly laid all these workers off. Since 1999, Union Pacific has continued to operate America’s premier railroad with too few men and women.”

Bromley said engineers are not forced to work 100 hours per week, and, in fact, federal law says they cannot work more than a 12-hour shift.

“A very few work close to [100 hours per week] just because physically it is not possible,” Bromley said. “Now some try to work as much as they can to make more money. But those are actions by individuals trying to earn as much money as is possible.”

But a story carried on the RRESQ Web site described a March 1 protest by a group of engineers and their wives who gathered outside the Las Vegas Union Pacific Railroad depot.

They were protesting, according to the story, “what they contend are unsafe work conditions that threaten to jeopardize the public’s safety.”

The article quoted Sheri Fisher, who said her husband Bryan is a third-generation engineer who’s worked for Union Pacific for 26 years.

She said that following a shift from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m., it’s not unusual for her husband to be called later the same day to work a 12-hour shift.

“I’ve seen the fatigue take its toll on him,” she was quoted.

Her husband complained, “It’s the typical corporate American model. Load on a minimal amount of people to do all the work. They’re running these guys into the ground.”

Here in Chico, Mayor Kirk said she was surprised by the power of Union Pacific.

“I didn’t think the trains had such precedence,” she said. Besides contacting Herger, whose office, she said, initially showed interest, Kirk’s also written Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Boxer’s office, she said, has indicated it is interested in writing a letter in support of another public hearing, but she has not heard from Feinstein’s office since an initial response indicating some interest in the matter.

City Manager Tom Lando sees no easy solution and blames UP for conducting some poor public relations in the matter.

“I do think they blew a lot of smoke in terms of technical jargon and they never fully explained how they check the tracks,” he said of the March 4 meeting. “We told them that they should have conducted some community meetings ahead of time.”

Moving the tracks away from town, as some suggested, makes no sense economically, Lando said, and it would cost $5 to $10 million per crossing to build road crossings over or under the tracks.

“I think the railroad ought to be required to set aside money for building the overpasses or underpasses,” Lando said.

But with the railroad’s power, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.