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Patch Poll: Should The Rail Switching Yard Be Relocated?

For years, critics have warned that the downtown is only one major spill or spark away from a catastrophe. Is it worth the risk?

It’s time to relocate the rail switching yard to a safer location.

The chemical accident at the switching yard last Friday evening was nothing serious, thank goodness. Two railroad workers were slightly exposed to a corrosive chemical that caused them some respiratory distress – they were treated and released at County Hospital, and it was found that one of the cars leaked slightly during loading.

For those of you unfamiliar with the switching yard, it is located about 200 yards west of the Amtrak Station, a ‘parking lot’ for rail cars loaded with various chemicals and agents, most of it from the refineries and ancillary companies. These cars contain any number of materials that are explosive, corrosive, flammable, toxic… the list is long and scary.

And by no means am I saying that there is not a need for a place like this; our society, like it or not, runs on a host of chemicals and substances that are extremely risky. Train transport has an excellent safety record. And we all need to accept a certain amount of risk for the rewards we all enjoy.

But from my perspective, the present switching yard is a relic of days gone by, a holdover from a time when the local industries were pretty much the landlords of these towns, employed a majority of people in them, and expected folks to look the other way when corners were cut here and there.

Thanks to some minor carelessness Friday, a little bit of a chemical spilled out of a tank car and caused two guys to head to the hospital.

The question is, what if some major carelessness caused a whole lot of that chemical to spill?

The switching yard is close enough to downtown Martinez, and the prevailing winds are such that, should something like that happen, many thousands of people would be seeking a hospital. And that is in the event of a liquid spill. What if the accident involved a toxic gas cloud? Or a major explosion?

These questions have been asked for years, but there are no answers forthcoming. The railroads were built in the mid and late 19th century, by men and companies who were, at the time, untouchable in terms of wealth and power. No one told the robber barons what to do. And they, in turn, were instrumental in growing the wealth and reach of our nation.

Of course, today that power and invulnerability has been transferred to Wall Street and the robber barons at investment banks like Goldman Sachs. But the railroads have maintained their steely insistence that they answer to no one. And they get away with it.

For many years now, Martinez has begged, pleaded, cajoled, threatened and screamed for Union Pacific to paint the trestle that crosses Alhambra Avenue. It is a beautiful structure, and has served its owners well for many, many years. But it’s old, and rusty, and it would look so much better with a new coat of paint.

But I can personally attest to the fact that the railroad is simply intractable when it comes to this or any other matter. They flat out refuse to negotiate. The trestle is safe, they insist, there is no structural problem with it, therefore it is not in need of maintenance. Thank you for calling, have a nice day. During my time working for the city, I wrote many letters, made numerous phone calls, tried to set up meetings, all in the name of getting that trestle painted, and all for naught.

Ok, it looks funky, makes a major entrance to our city look funky, it’s rude and not at all neighborly to let your property fall into that level of disrepair and do nothing about it. But ok. No one gets hurt with an offended aesthetic.

But the switching yard is another matter. This is a company playing with thousands of lives, our lives, on the rather shaky premise that probably nothing will go wrong. But there is no security at Ozol – hikers and joggers walk next to those cars daily with absolute impunity. And judging from the placards describing what is in those tankers, there are very few substances not permitted to ‘park’ there.

Again, the railroad says it’s safe, and that’s that. No amount of local, state or federal intervention can apparently move them off this position. The switching yard will remain where it is, if the railroad has its way. And it almost always does.

But why should that be? Why should the citizens of our city have to wait for a Bhopal-like disaster to have the railroads find a safer spot to park their hazardous and explosive material? How have they managed to remain so immune and removed from the imperatives of public safety?

There are surely much safer places for these tankers and trains to be stored while awaiting transport, places further away from a population center, from courts and restaurants and day care centers, from homes and churches and schools. Our homes and churches and schools.

Martinez has a long and storied history with the railroad. There are many of us here, myself among them, with romantic notions of the railroad and its mystery – those of us who hear the distant whistle and feel something of our history, our destiny, in the sound.

But everyone has a stake in public safety. Move the switching yard to a more remote location. We’ll all breathe easier, now and certainly in the future. 

What do you think? Take our poll and tell us in the comments. 

gayle goldblatt March 27, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Jim --I completely agree with you. However, if they refuse to do something as simple as PAINT, what makes you think we can sucessfully get them to move the switchyard?
Beth Eiselman March 27, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Jim, It will be much more exciting to locate 50-100 new residents right alongside--those who will be" elderly and (now) infirm in the soon to be built section 8 Berrellesa Palms. Stay tuned, film at 11.
Jim Caroompas (Editor) March 27, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Gayle, my point was that the railroads seem immune to political pressure, but public pressure might make a difference. I believe the subject merits at least an open and public discussion, given the potential for real harm.
Jim Caroompas (Editor) March 27, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Beth, the switching yard is certainly a major factor in the Berrellesa Palms project, as it is for every downtown neighborhood.
Barbara Glenn March 27, 2012 at 03:41 PM
I agree with Beth. This is a disaster just waiting to happen, and the RR won't do anything and the City Fathers seem bound and determined to put people on that piece of land- right in harms way. It's a no win situation!
Jed March 27, 2012 at 04:01 PM
There's nothing worth much at that end of the town to necessitate moving the rail yard (and WHO would PAY for that move - not the railroad!). It would be easier to move that end of town away, besides, the rail yard is mostly surrounded by hills and city park. Who comes up with these nut-ball ideas anyway? Head-in-the-sand types?
Lisa Gorrell March 27, 2012 at 04:31 PM
The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad owns the trestle in southern Martinez, not the Union Pacific Railroad.
Jerry Ott March 27, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Move the switching yard, where? Hey Man ! Not in my backyard, will be the answer you will get from everyone. Accidents don't just happen, they are caused. A full review of safety procedures is in order here. Jerry
Bill Wainwright March 27, 2012 at 04:51 PM
As mentioned by Bill Nichols Monday morning and now our stalwart editor, the prevailing winds out the west expose the entire downtdown, probably 5,000 to 7,000 people to any major accident occuring along that switching yard stretch. A smaller but deadly incident would likely reach the residents along lower Berrellesa and Alhambra, Foster, Buckley, Thompson and Talbart streets, and western Marina Vista, an area the includes the office of the County Clerk-Recorder's and Elections Department and the site of the Berrellesa Palms development and the newly built Rankin Aquatic Center. People finding themselves in this area at the wrong time deserve as much consideration as those who live beyond the reach of such a potential disaster. It should be remembered that just within the past few years there have been minor collisions of tank cars in the switching yard area and that most nights robot switch engines regularly shuttle back and forth doing the switching.
Jim Caroompas (Editor) March 27, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Lisa, you are correct, and they are just as intractable as Union Pacific in their refusal to consider discussion.
Dick Duncan March 27, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Hey Jed where you been? The switching yard operations extend from the original switching yard at Ozol all the way way through the Downtown area and through the Shell Refinery. Go down and take a good look at the railroad operation, you will see just how it dominates the Downtown. While the railroad has been there since the early 1900's, it has grown both in size and arrogance. The current operation of Union Pacific is by far the worst, they have no concern for the community they impact and have made it clear they will do nothing to mitigate the huge negative impact they on our community. Any other publicly held corporation would at least pay some attention to the their "public image", not Union Pacific. Profits and greed are their mission and vision. The "robber barons" are alive and doing very well. Just maybe it is time to turn up the pressure. We have a new voice in Washington in Rep. Mike Thompson, maybe we should weigh-in and let him know we would like some representation in this issue.
Paul L Wilson March 27, 2012 at 06:11 PM
The Downtown Specific Plan with City planning and even the City Council with little acceptation never addressed this problem believing that putting people along the railroad track at the switching yard would not put people in harms way. The downtown specific plan would have put 186 town homes and 369 apartment units next to the switching yard on opportunity sites 1,2,3, and 4 Oh I need to make a correction site 4 is where Berrellesa Palms will now go so from the 21 town homes has been converted to 50 apartment unit not much of a stretch their. So 584 units with maybe 1250 people would be put in harms way. I hope that no one in this neighborhood will ever wake up to see a flaming railroad tank car vaulting over their home or a cloud of mist coming down the street.
Bill Nichols March 27, 2012 at 06:23 PM
One of the main purposes of the Martinez switchyard is to act as a storage facility for massive amounts of toxic chemicals in tankers being moved by trains. As Jim points out, it was built to accomodate the oil and rail industries and the public be damned. The site has a history of accidents, derailments, and spills. It is unsecure and unguarded without even gates to prevent anyone from driving in. Can you possibly imagine a member of the public driving into a refinery and hanging out? This facility should be moved to Port Chicago - secure military installation, large buffer zone, same mainline track system. It is an accident waiting to happen.
marian broadhurst March 27, 2012 at 06:31 PM
Has anyone done an Environmental Assessment (EA) on alternatives? It's unlikely even if one had been done, that any change would be made. Reading up on cases like this one around the country, liability seems to rest either with the manufacturer or the transport company, and courts have stated the penalties for negligence are sufficient to discourage mishandling of toxic materials. It appears courts will not pressure relocation of switching yards. In this particular case, from what I read it was a loading issue when toxic chemical spilled on the outside of the container, started to emit fumes from heat. Sounds like it's time to do a HIA (Health Impact Analysis). The HIA creates a baseline so long-term changes in the health of the people who live and work near these facilities can be more easily spotted. Only then, if there's a marked change will a case be made to make any changes, in my opinion.
Jeff Songster March 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Wow... I think we need to review the safety procedures... but to relocate the yard... is a massive undertaking...and if you are truly worried about hazards... you are ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in our midst... The refineries and chemical plants. I don't seriously propose removing those... but they are certainly bigger hazards than any railroad passing through.
Bill Nichols March 28, 2012 at 02:17 AM
Jeff: The refineries have strict safety procedures in place, emergency response capabilities, and since 9/11 very tight security. The Martinez switchyard has none of this. When I say none, I mean get in your car and drive down there now. Pick whatever toxic chemical you want and park next to that tanker. Let's say, sulphuric acid or liquid petroleum gas. Hopefully you've brought a book because it will be a while before anyone even notices you're there. Like to fish? Build a bonfire down along the right of way and fish on! You won't be bothered unless Fish&Game is in the area. It's not a question of reviewing safety procedures at the switchyard. THERE AREN'T ANY SAFETY PROCEDURES. The railroad either needs to treat it like the major hazard that it is with appropriate safety and security measures or move it to a location where a tanker accident involving a chemical release won't take out half the town.
Jeff Songster March 28, 2012 at 04:52 AM
Ok
Fred Ziffel March 28, 2012 at 06:05 AM
I am rail employee & have seen this agrument from both sides in other locals. Now, I don't speak for the railroad industry but I have followed similar situations where the commmunity wants the RR to move. Result, based on Federal case law the cost to move a rail yard would be born by in this case the City of Martinez. Now, the last I looked the piggy bank is not over flowing with the green or gold stuff that your tax payers provided. BTW, several years ago shortly after 9-11 the city of Washington DC wanted to restrict certain hazardous shipments by the RR through their city. Arguements were made in Federal Court and the DC lost. In short local jurisditions can't make laws or regulations on the nations RR's.
Fred Ziffel March 28, 2012 at 06:27 AM
Bill, you are incorrect. Every RR employee has to pass a Federal Hazmat test and we have safety procedures mandated by state & federal regulations. BTW, I have been at major derailmants where rail tank cars have been crashed into and no leaks have occured, this is due to the contruction improvements to tank cars in the last 20 years. Lastly, the UP many years ago impossed a no access to railroad property cutting off fisherman access. People went nuts, and under political pressure UP open access for people to cross the RR property lines to access the water.
Carolyn Hill March 28, 2012 at 09:42 PM
I agree, Paul. Why, in our country, city, is it so difficult for those in power, and even those not in power, to come together and try to solve a potential problem before it happens??? It always seems to take a disaster, loss of lives, loss of health, etc. before anyone will become seriously interested/
Carolyn Hill March 28, 2012 at 09:44 PM
OMG, Marion, now I forsee thousands spend on consultants, planners, studies....... However, I agree, you make a good point.
Carolyn Hill March 28, 2012 at 09:57 PM
the switching yard will never be removed. However, our elected officials, both City, County and State have a moral, and possibly legal obligation, to investigate the safety policies and actions and then follow-up with a plan to ensure the absolute best possible safety procedures.
Marie Bealle June 06, 2012 at 04:42 PM
You're just mad because it's across the street from your modular duplex with the oh so lovely carport on Buckley. You don't live here! You're just another absentee landlord!
Steve Russell July 20, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Since the trestle crossing Alhambra Avenue has never, ever been owned by Union Pacific or Southern Pacific, I'm not too sure I can believe much of what the author writes.
Jim Caroompas (Editor) July 20, 2012 at 06:26 AM
Steve, you're absolutely correct. I made a mistake - the trestle is owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. And of course, since I made that mistake, it completely voids my position that the railroad companies are difficult, if not impossible, to work with.
Kat April 19, 2013 at 08:51 PM
Have you ever lived in Gillette, WY? I am a 30 female looking for my father whom I have never met. I was told that he worked for a railroad company and that his name is Steve Russell. I know nothing else about him.

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