Railroad Blues

How long will it be before Tucson deals with a major train wreck?

WHEN 19 CARS derailed from a 107-car Union Pacific train in the Sahuarita area on January 2, some 75 residents had to be evacuated due to a sulfuric acid spill from five of the cars. That chemical is a common passenger among the 50 to 60 trains that rumble through Tucson each day. What's amazing is that Tucson has been lucky in that such accidents have occurred outside the city limits. Had those 10,000 gallons of sulfuric acid leaked off the tracks that run through downtown Tucson, it would have been ugly. What the Sahuarita accident has done is, once again, raise the issue of Tucson's train safety.

"We have more of a rail yard and rail line here than they have in Phoenix," says Dick Schaffer, senior transportation planner with the Pima Association of Governments (PAG). "The reason is that we are one of the major hubs for going north and south of Mexico."

With 738 miles of track in Arizona, Tucson is considered by Union Pacific as one of the most heavily traveled areas in the country, primarily by trains supporting the mining industry and transporting containers to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Interestingly, there is no commuter rail service between Tucson and Phoenix because Amtrak feels that stretch of track is unsafe for passenger trains.

Now plans for the Port of Tucson, a storage and distribution yard for container cars, will make Tucson the only stop between Los Angeles and Houston with those capabilities. With the location (Kolb Road and I-10) within a federal foreign trade zone, the elimination of duty on goods moving through the "port" can only mean even more train traffic through Tucson.

With all this rail traffic, the Old Pueblo has been lucky--so far--in its lack of derailments or major crossing accidents within the city that could have resulted in major hazardous waste spills. Because trains first arrived in the Old Pueblo in March 1880, pre-dating the interstates and major developments, trains follow old lines that now come directly through town, rather than being routed around the population.

The Arizona Corporation Commission is the state agency responsible for enforcing state and federal safety requirements for crossing gates, crossing signals and timing devices. But the state has lacked a full-time railroad signal inspector since October 1997.

Each year the commission is responsible for about $1.5 million in federal funds for railroad crossing safety improvements at the state's 665 crossings. This is an important point, since earlier last year the Supreme Court ruled that railroads cannot be sued for accidents at crossings where federal or state money was used for installing the $125,000-$250,000 warning devices.

The last year state officials actually inspected crossings was 1996, when they found 202 defects at the state's 942 public crossings (94 of the public crossings are in Pima County). State inspectors worked this out to about a 0.4-percent rate of defects. But when the feds inspected, they found closer to 10 percent defects.

Without a full-time signal inspector, Heather Murphy, a spokesperson for the corporation commission, says the signals are being inspected by the railroads. "Signals are being inspected on a monthly basis. The lack of an inspector has not caused any accidents." Murphy says the current legislature is considering the commission's request for funding the full-time signal inspector position, which has gone unfunded for the last three years. Still, the state's safety track record isn't that great:

· Arizona is one of the 10 worst states for pedestrian fatalities on railroad tracks, with 14 deaths in 1999 alone.

· About two-thirds of all collisions at state public crossings actually occur where everything is functioning properly.

· Since 1981, there have been 665 crashes at state crossings, resulting in 81 deaths and 205 injuries.

· The downtown area alone has some 15 crossings in various states of repair, and trains are required to slow down. "What we've found is that most speed ordinances against trains don't work," says Schaffer. "You have to enforce them."

The downhill run from the north is a case in point. "When it's going through Marana, and Tangerine and Ina, it's cooking," notes Schaffer.

According to PAG, the ranking of the most dangerous area crossings places Prince Road second, with Sixth Street ranking first (the 32,000 cars that cross those tracks per day is 18 percent more than the street was designed for), and Ina Road being third among the county's 77 public crossings. The Sixth Street crossing has seen 13 collisions since 1972, and Prince has seen 10. In all, 56 collisions have occurred at PAG's top 15 nasty railroad crossings in the county during the same period; 10 of those lie within the city limits.

PAG's solution for Prince Road is an under- or overpass, an answer with a $20-30 million price tag and a five- to 10-year timetable--if the city can find the money. In the meantime, some 27,000 vehicles cross those tracks daily, according to PAG. The problem there is that the railroad is so close to the interstate and the traffic lights are controlled by rail traffic. When a train goes through during rush hour, cars can actually be backed up onto the interstate, causing a traffic hazard. And, according to state law, railroad traffic cannot be interrupted, even during the construction of an underpass.

The feds have told the state they'll provide no money to fix up the Prince intersection because crossings off the interstate are not a federal problem. But last year, state law saw changes that allow $12.6 million a year in highways funds, once only used for road work, now to be used for rail crossing improvements.

In the meantime, PAG is in the process of updating a report about the county's 116 miles of tracks and is pushing forward with a plan to install cameras along the rail line. "We would like to know the actual number of trains and their speed," says Schaffer.

West side drivers can only hope that no trains derail while the numbers are getting crunched.