Tom Butt
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  Sleep Well in 2016!
January 2, 2016

Have you noticed the dramatic decrease in train horns the last few months? I used to get dozens of train horn complaints a year. In 2015, I got two. Here’s why.

For many years, the railroad tracks that crisscross south Richmond were seldom used, night or day. They were essentially abandoned infrastructure largely left over from the WWII shipyard complexes. About the only train activity on the area was a multi-modal facility BNSF operated at the Richmond rail yards that parallel Garrard Boulevard north of Point Richmond and a few industrial customers along Canal Boulevard and Harbour Way South. In the early 1990s, the City completed a study that recommended removal of most of the rails.

Beginning about the year 2000, all that changed. The multi-modal facility was moved from Point Richmond to the Port of Oakland, and BNSF started using its meandering south Richmond trackage as a main line, moving ponderous mile-long trains from the Port of Oakland through Richmond and on to Martinez. BNSF, and later, the Port of Richmond ramped up the use of the spur line that runs through Point Richmond to transport car-carrying trains both in and out of a yard owned by BNSF at the intersection of Canal and Cutting Boulevards.

In the fall of 2015, a project called the Richmond Rail Connector was completed and put into operation. Click here for the Environmental Assessment. The purpose of the project, from the Initial Study, was as follows:

"The primary purpose of this project is to provide more efficient rail operations along the BNSF Stockton Subdivision and UPRR Martinez Subdivision north of downtown Richmond. Currently, BNSF trains have to travel through downtown Richmond [When the term “downtown Richmond” is used, it really means south Richmond, specifically the area north of Marina Bay and Point Richmond.] to reach the Port of Oakland because there is no connector to the UPRR tracks that provides a more direct route to the Port. A connector rail allowing BNSF trains to access UPRR’s Martinez subdivision without going through downtown Richmond would improve the efficiency and competitiveness of goods movement along this corridor. By substantially reducing the number of slow-moving intermodal trains in the center of the city, a connector would also relieve traffic congestion at nine at-grade crossings in downtown Richmond. The project would benefit the residents of Richmond by reducing air emissions and noise from train air horns and warning signals at the at-grade crossings. In addition, it would reduce the need for BNSF trains to use tracks north of Richmond on the Martinez Subdivision, freeing up capacity and reducing conflicts for both UPRR and passenger trains."

The need for the project is also described:

"For the past several years, BNSF voluntarily ran its intermodal freight trains serving the Port of Oakland on the UPRR tracks between Port Chicago and Stege to avoid BNSF’s own circuitous route through the center of Richmond. Stege is the point along the railroad tracks where the BNSF and UP tracks converge in east Richmond. Refer to Figure 2. In May 2008, a federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) ruling stated that BNSF does not have the authority to operate its intermodal trains on this segment of the UPRR route. The STB ruling required BNSF intermodal trains to travel through the center of Richmond accessing UPRR’s Martinez Subdivision south of Richmond at Stege.The BNSF Stockton Subdivision swings west through downtown Richmond to the Company’s railyard on the west side of the City. Refer to Figure 4. Then, the BNSF tracks swing back east and traverse the length of the City from west to east. At a location called Stege, the BNSF tracks intercept the UPRR Martinez Subdivision, which continues south into the Port of Oakland. Trains using BNSF tracks through Richmond must travel at low train speeds (20 miles per hour(mph) or less) that often result in blocking traffic for extended periods of time at fourteen closely-spaced grade crossings within Richmond. Refer to Figures 5a and 5b for the location of at-grade crossings on both the BNSF and UPRR tracks. The longer route and slow speeds increase the amount of time it takes BNSF trains to reach the Port of Oakland. The slow-moving BNSF trains accessing the Martinez Subdivision at Stege also impact Capital Corridor and San Joaquin passenger and UPRR freight trains, reducing their on-time performance and reliability."

In layman’s language, what this project did was eliminate the mile long trains that frequently trundled through Marina Bay, blocking grade crossings for long periods of time and sounding horns at the three grade crossings (Marina Way, Harbour Way South and All Aboard Storage) that are not quiet zones for various reasons. The grade crossing blockages were a problem day and night, and the horn blowing was particularly aggravating at night. Now, the only rail traffic on the meandering south Richmond trackage is daytime switching by the shortline local Richmond Pacific Railroad.

Sleep well in 2016!