Railroad Newsline for Monday, June 18, 2007
Compiled by Larry W. Grant
In Memory of Rob Carlson, 1952 – 2006
QUESTIONS SURROUND EVENTS LEADING UP TO DEADLY CRASH
BAYTOWN, TX --
A day after the fatal crash, investigators said Friday that they have few answers to explain why a sport utility vehicle packed with underage youths slammed into a train that had been parked at a rural crossing for more than half an hour.
Harris County sheriff's deputies have spoken with the train crew, but so far have focused their attention on what the children were doing in the hours leading up to the crash near Baytown about 04:00 hours Thursday.
In particular, they are trying to determine if alcohol or drugs were involved, though there were no signs of either at the scene, officials said.
Killed were Loral Moyers, 12, along with Macy Moyers, Colette Windham and Austin Davis, all 14. Davis' brother, Bobby Davis, and Blake Barger, both 15, survived and were taken to Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center.
Barger is in fair condition. A hospital spokesman said Davis' family has requested that no information be released about the boy who was behind the wheel of the stolen 1993 Jeep Cherokee.
Investigators know little so far, mainly because they have been unable to interview Barger and Bobby Davis, said Lt. John Martin, Harris County Sheriff's Office spokesman.
However, they know the Cherokee had been reported stolen about the time of the crash. Maria Salazar, the owner, reported the vehicle stolen just after 04:00 hours when her husband noticed it was missing from their home in the 4600 block of Johnson at Wade, about two miles from the crossing.
Martin said investigators are not sure who stole the Jeep. However, they know that Bobby Davis did not have a driver's license or permit.
It appears that the victims had sneaked out of their families' homes. The Davis brothers and Barger picked up Windham and Macy Moyers and then picked up Loral Moyers at her home about a quarter mile from the crossing.
The boys may have been trying to get Loral Moyers back to her house after her father, Doug Moyers, left a message on her cell phone telling her to come home, friends and family speculate.
Some time between 03:00 and 04:00 hours, the Jeep sped along East Archer Road. The crossing is not lit, gated or signaled and Bobby Davis saw the train too late to stop, investigators said.
The impact, which could be heard in the neighborhood, sheared off the Jeep's roof.
Investigators say they are dumbfounded about how Barger and Bobby Davis survived. Both were in the front seat while the others were in the back seat.
"The only thing I can figure is perhaps the two people (in front) saw they were about to hit something and ducked," Martin said. "The ones in back didn't see it coming."
Martin said accident investigators will have a hard time determining the Jeep's speed because it slid under and hit the train and that affected the tire skid marks, which are used as speed indicators.
The train crew didn't know the train had been hit, said Joe Arbona, Union Pacific spokesman.
Arbona said the crew was performing complicated switching operations with one of the train's locomotives at a nearby switching yard.
The train had blocked the crossing for 33 minutes when the accident occurred, he added.
The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the national railways, does not regulate how long trains can block crossings, according to the administration's Web site.
Texas law, however, prohibits trains from blocking crossings for more than 10 minutes, though the statute may not apply because railroads in some instances are controlled by the federal government, said Warren Diepraam, a Harris County assistant district attorney.
No citations have been issued, officials said.
Prosecutors will wait for the investigation to conclude before deciding whether either of the crash survivors should face criminal charges, according to Diepraam, who heads the vehicular homicide team at the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
The tanker, the 80th car in a 126-car train, did not have reflective material to help make it visible at night, Arbona said.
The Federal Railroad Administration has a rule requiring reflectors on rail cars to prevent night collisions with vehicles, but railway companies have several years to equip rolling stock, said Warren Flatau, administration spokesman.
The Moyers' relatives said trains regularly block the crossing.
"For some 30-odd years, people have been trying to do something about that and no one has taken it seriously enough. No one's done anything about it," said Loral Moyers' mother, Kessie Moyers, of Clear Lake. "Does it take something like this, where it takes these kids' lives to do something? It's sad. It's very, very sad."
Local TxDOT spokeswoman, Janelle Gbur, said the crossing was recommended in June 2006 to be upgraded with flashing signals and gates. - Dale Lezon, The Houston Chroni
EXPERTS: INEXPERIENCE FACTOR IN YOUNG DRIVERS' DEATHS
BAYTOWN, TX --
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers, experts say, largely because of their inexperience at the wheel and their lack of maturity at assessing risky situations.
Investigators believe 15-year-old Bobby Davis was driving a stolen SUV that slammed into a train near Baytown early today, killing four teens in the back seat and seriously injuring himself and another passenger.
Davis didn't have any kind of driver's license, officials said.
According to a Houston Chronicle analysis last year, drivers 15 and under were involved in 71 fatal wrecks in Texas between 2002 and 2004, and Harris County had the most. Five of those fatal crashed happened between the hours of 03:00 and 06:00, the same time period as Thursday's accident.
Russell Henke, research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute, said that beginning drivers are up to 10 times more likely to be involved in fatal wrecks than mature adults when comparing miles driven.
And an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the crash rate per mile among 16- to 19-year-olds was four times the rate for middle-aged adults.
Dr. Arlene Greenspan, senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said the crash risk for beginning drivers starts to drop dramatically within the first year and the first 1,000 miles of driving.
"That's why recent laws focus on the very new driver because the crash rate is so high," she said. "It's a very risky time, and teens are still learning to control the car, still learning this complex task of driving under different situations."
In Texas, 15-year-olds can only drive legally if they have a special hardship license or a learner's permit that requires the teen to be accompanied by a licensed driver who is least 21 years old.
At 16, they may qualify for a provisional license, which for six months restricts when they drive and who they can have in the car with them. With that license, teens cannot drive between 00:00 and 05:00 hours, they cannot have more than one passenger under 21 who is not a family member and they cannot talk on a cell phone while operating the vehicle.
Concerned about the unsettling number of teens deaths in car accidents, the Texas Transportation Institute launched a peer-to-peer safety program in 2002 that provides information to student leaders that can be shared with their classmates.
The program, patterned after a no-smoking program, is based on the premise that teens are more likely to listen to peers when it comes to modifying their behavior. The program is offered primarily in schools, Henke said, but not yet in the Houston area.
A key component of the program is to help teens recognize the primary risks that can lead to a car accident. Those top risks:
· Nighttime driving;
· Distractions, including too many other teens in the car;
· Failure to use seat belts;
· Use of alcohol or drugs.
Officials say that at least several of those risk factors were involved in today's accident.
"It's tragic,'' said Bernie Fette, spokesman for the Texas Transportation Institute. "We deal with these stories every day, but this one is indescribable. We have to help these kids change their behavior, but you can't change behavior until you change awareness. So that is where we are starting." - Melanie Markley, The Houston Chronicle
DEADLY JOY RIDE HAD BEEN IN WORKS FOR DAYS; MOM SAYS BOYS HAD A HISTORY OF EMBARKING ON SIMILAR ADVENTURES
Caption reads: Mourners gather last week at the site where four children died and two were injured after the SUV they were riding in crashed into a stopped train. (James Nielsen/The Houston Chronicle)
BAYTOWN, TX --
April Davis arrived home from her part-time job at the VFW Hall about 22:00 hours Wednesday to find the phone ringing off the hook, her teenage sons in the living room and a friend asleep in a nearby bedroom.
As had become her habit, Davis hid her car keys before going to bed. Then she unplugged the telephone and told the kids to go to sleep.
Her boys, 15-year-old Bobby and 14-year-old Austin, had recently discovered the thrills of late-night joy rides, taking family members' cars for a spin, although neither had a driver's license. Davis didn't want her sons making another such excursion that night.
What she didn't know was that the boys -- and some girls -- had been planning for a week, through text messages and hushed cell phone conversations, to take a forbidden cruise around Baytown.
Without keys to a car, the Davis brothers ventured out into the darkness with their friend, Blake Varger, 15, eager to embrace the midweek freedom that only a summer night can offer.
In fact, Bobby was so determined to own some road that night that he stole two vehicles, according to Harris County sheriff's Investigator Derek Wilke. The first, taken from an auto shop, broke down.
In one of those split-second tragedies that seem so fleeting and impossible in the rashness of youth, Bobby, behind the wheel of the second vehicle, hurtled the stolen Jeep Cherokee and its young passengers headlong into a train that had been stopped for 33 minutes at a dark railroad crossing just outside Baytown's city limits.
The impact tore the roof off the sport utility vehicle, killing four people in the back seat, seriously injuring Bobby and a passenger in the front seat and marring Bobby's future -- if he survives -- with possible legal trouble.
Bobby's brother, Austin, died instantly, along with 12-year-old Loral Moyers and 14-year-olds Macy Moyers and Colette Windham.
Bobby was in critical condition at Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center on Saturday, and Blake, who was in the front seat next to him, was in fair condition.
Charges could be filed
According to Lt. Darryl Coleman of the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the teen could face charges ranging from criminally negligent homicide to felony murder.
The Davis boys' mother struggled to express her emotions.
"I made sure I locked my keys in my room so they would not go out joy-riding," April Davis said. "I'm hurting for everybody. I'm hurting because Bobby's going to have a hard time with this. He's going to have a really hard time, and I know he didn't mean it.
"I don't know what to say," she said. "I've lost one, and I got one that may not make it. I feel like it's my fault."
The Davis boys' younger brother, Dallas, said the group hatched plans for the jaunt -- which involved waiting for various sets of parents to fall asleep and commandeering whatever vehicle might be available -- a week earlier.
The plan called for Colette to spend the night at Macy's house. Blake would spend the night at the Davis brothers' home. Once they had a car in the wee hours of Thursday morning, they would pick up Macy's younger cousin, Loral, at the girls' grandmother's house.
Bobby, a handsome and buff 15-year-old from a trailer park managed by his grandfather outside Baytown's city limits, was dating Colette, the daughter of a local schoolteacher.
Loral, the youngest, was enticed into joining the group by her cousin, Macy, who introduced her to Blake. Loral had a crush on the older boy, friends said.
The girls' longtime friends said Macy and Colette had been swept up in Bobby and Blake's world, in part, because the boys were mysterious 15-year-olds who drove cars and hardly suffered consequences for sneaking out at night.
"Every girl liked Bobby because he's cute," said Tara Harper, a Gentry Junior School student and family friend who had known him when both lived in Dayton in nearby Liberty County.
Macy and Colette had visited Bobby's home at night previously, and his mother said she cautioned the girls against going out without their parents' permission.
"Colette and Macy were cute girls. They had come over, and I told them: 'If you're going to come over, I want permission from your family. Don't just sneak out,' because they have done it before. I said, 'This is a big no-no.' "
The Davis brothers and Blake existed somewhat on the margins of the community in this semi-rural area outside Baytown, where many families live in large new homes on big lots.
Blake had a reputation as a bad boy known for always having a new girlfriend and driving his grandmother's car late at night.
"Blake, he pretty much did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted," said Carley Cates, a Gentry Junior School student who was a recent acquaintance.
By suppertime Wednesday, the anticipation of the late-night excursion was building.
Blake Varger arrived at the Davis family's trailer home, where they began calling girls they knew, inviting them to go out later that night.
"Come out with us," they said, promising to have a set of wheels by 23:00 hours.
About 17:30 hours, Macy called her longtime friend, Katie Fuentes, 13, and invited her to join the late-night excursion.
"I told her I didn't know because I don't like sneaking out," said Katie, who is about to enter the eighth grade at Gentry.
By 19:00 hours, Loral had returned home from shopping with her grandmother. She said nothing about late-night plans while talking on the phone with her 12-year-old friend, Hannah Robinson. Instead, they discussed Loral's clothing purchases and how to cook Ramen noodles.
"She sounded happy as usual," Hannah said.
As late as 23:00 hours, the boys were still making phone calls, trying to rally people to join the fun.
'Don't do anything bad'
Sometime after midnight, Wilke said, Bobby stole the first vehicle from an auto-repair shop as Austin and Blake waited down the street. The three then went to Bobby's place.
"The plan was to take the car and bring it back after they got finished using it," Wilke said.
At 00:30 hours, Macy was still safe at her mother's Baytown home with Colette. Macy, whose mother had already gone to bed, called Katie again for a quick phone chat, but Macy's plans to sneak out were not discussed further.
The group appeared to jell between 01:30 and 02:00 hours, when Macy's cousin, Loral, called her friend Hannah again.
"I was like, 'What are you doing?' She said she was getting ready to go out, and she said she was going to sneak out. I said, 'Don't do anything bad,' " Hannah recalled.
"She said she was going to be with Blake."
The boys picked up the girls a short time later, but the stolen car quickly broke down.
According to officials, Bobby took the 1993 Jeep from the driveway of Maria Salazar and her husband in the 4600 block of Johnson, as the teen's brother and friends waited down the road.
"We believe he probably jammed something up in the ignition," sheriff's Lt. Coleman said.
That vehicle soon would become a death trap.
A tragic turn
As the teens sped eastbound on East Archer between 03:30 and 04:00 hours, Bobby told his passengers that he wanted to catch some air over the tracks, Blake told authorities.
His friends, scared, told him not to, Wilke said. But Bobby picked up speed to jump the tracks.
Blake suddenly realized that something was blocking his line of sight, that he couldn't see a yellow sign down the road he had seen so many times before, Wilke said.
"The next thing Blake knows is they hit a train," Wilke said.
Bobby slammed on the brakes. The Jeep slid under a railroad tanker containing 120 tons of fuel, probably gasoline. After clearing the other side, the vehicle flipped into a deep ditch, Wilke said.
Colette, Loral, Macy and Austin -- shoulder to shoulder in the back seat in that order -- died together.
In the wake
Bobby and Blake, in the front, talked to one another about ways to get out of the vehicle, but they remained trapped, Wilke said. A man driving by noticed the car and called 911 shortly after 04:00 hours.
Friends and family members of the victims think the teens may have been rushing back to Loral's house after her father discovered she was missing from her bedroom.
Doug Moyers said he had called his daughter's cell phone but got no answer. He left her messages telling her to return home. He went outside -- the family's home is near the same set of railroad tracks -- and whistled for her.
Whether Loral listened to those messages or noticed her father had called her phone is not known. Loral's older sister, Darian, later happened upon the scene of the crash and alerted the family of the news.
"I was screaming her name," Darian Moyers said. "I think I heard her call back to me." - Robert Crowe, Paige Hewitt, Peggy O'Hare and Brian Rogers, The Houston Chronicle
GEORGETOWN LOOP RAILROAD GETS A LATE START
Photo gallery here:
GEORGETOWN, CO --
After a two-week delay, the historic Georgetown loop railroad is up and running again in Clear Creek County.
About 500 people went on the train on its first day of operations for the 2007 season.
The tourist attraction was supposed to open on Memorial Day, but engineers said they needed to do some mechanical work on the main locomotive. The locomotive, Number 12, was built in 1928.
The loop railroad is a big part of summer tourism for Georgetown and Silver Plume, and many businesses were disappointed by the delayed opening. On Friday business owners in the area said they were thrilled to have the passengers back shopping at their stories.
Town officials said the attraction draws in great crowds because it offers something so unique -- a ride from a steam locomotive that's nearly 100 years old.
The loop runs from Georgetown to Silver Plume. The train runs seven days a week and makes five trips a day. It will run through Oct. 8. - Andrea Lopez, CBS4, Denver, CO
RAIL SALE COULD DEAL ANOTHER SETBACK TO DEADWOOD PASSENGER TRAINS
RAPID CITY, SD --
Reports that the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad might be sold were greeted with consternation by Ralph Justen, who worried that a sale could hamper his plans to launch a Northern Hills tourist train.
Justen is head of Black Hills Transportation. The company’s proposal is the Deadwood, Black Hills & Western Railroad, offering passenger train service between Deadwood, Whitewood, Sturgis and Rapid City.
The Whitewood-to-Rapid City leg of the line would run on existing DM&E track. To do that, Black Hills Transportation needs a trackage rights agreement with DM&E.
But if DM&E ends up being sold, Justen fears that the newly formed company might be less willing to allow passenger trains on the Colony Line.
Justen said Black Hills Transportation had been talking with DM&E for two years about a trackage rights agreement. But a couple of months ago, Justen said, communication ceased. At the time, he suspected that a DM&E sale or merger might be in the works.
A story this week on the Trains magazine Web site reported that DM&E had narrowed the list of suitors to 10 finalists. The list reportedly includes the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific railroads.
Canadian National spokesman Jim Kvedaras, asked about a possible sale, said his company does not discuss acquisition activity "real or imagined."
For a decade, DM&E had been trying to finance its ambitious $6 billion plan to rebuild and extend its existing east-west line to tap the coal-hauling business from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
That project was dealt a serious setback in February when the Federal Railroad Administration turned DM&E down for a $2.3 billion federal loan. Since then, speculation has been widespread that DM&E would have to sell out or take on a major partner to get its line built.
DM&E president Kevin Schieffer was not available for comment Friday. But earlier this week, he said the Trains story had “an awful lot of speculation.” But he also said the company is looking at many options to obtain private financing for the coal line.
“It puts us in an uncertain position,” Justen said Friday. “We’re hoping they decide quickly who the new partner is and what shape that partnership takes. We hope that it is somebody that’s friendly to passenger trains. We’re confident we can work with anybody, but some are more friendly than others.”
Trackage rights could be the least of the problems for the delay-plagued project. Fifteen years ago, actor Kevin Costner first proposed building the rail line from Rapid City Regional Airport to his proposed Dunbar Resort near Deadwood.
The resort project was scrapped six years ago. But Costner, who remains a key investor in Black Hills Transportation, pushed ahead with the passenger train proposal.
Last month, a South Dakota Supreme Court decision, however, struck down the company's claim to a railroad right of way through Whitewood Canyon.
Black Hills Transportation plans to lay new track on the old right of way, which runs between Whitewood and Deadwood.
Chicago & North Western Railroad operated trains in the canyon but tore up its tracks in 1970. All that remains is a tunnel and a bridge.
In 2003, the state of South Dakota, claiming that it retained the right of way when C&NW left, transferred the right of way to the Northern Hills Railroad Authority, the legal entity working with Justen’s company to build the line.
However, last month, the South Dakota Supreme Court sent the case back to circuit court, where landowners along the line continue their legal fight.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, a piece of Black Hills Transportation property was put up for sale. The Whitewood train station was to be built there, and Northern Hills residents speculated that it meant the end of the Costner’s rail plans.
And a couple of months ago, Black Hills Transportation moved out of its downtown Deadwood office and took up quarters in one of the buildings at the Pete Lien & Sons rock quarry outside Rapid City.
Justen said the Whitewood land sale involved only an unneeded 9 acre tract of the company’s property there. He said the office was moved to Rapid City not for financial reasons but for convenience. “We have more room, and most of our business is in Rapid City,” he said.
He insisted the company is not having cash-flow problems. “I’ve brought in some heavy, heavy hitters, but until we get some of these issues resolved, I don’t feel like taking a lot of money,” he said. “This is going to get built, just like the (DM&E) coal line is going to get built. It may be next year or the year after. We just don’t know when.” - Dan Daly, The Rapid City Journal
ROUTE 66 MEETS THE RAILWAY: SALINAS PHOTOGRAPHER, WRITER BRINGS PASSIONS TOGETHER IN NEW BOOK
Caption reads: Photographer Elrond Lawrence is pictured Monday at the Salinas train station as the evening Amtrak pulls away. (Scott Macdonald/The Salinas Californian)
SALINAS, CA --
Peering down the tracks, Elrond Lawrence of Salinas sought that point where parallels converge and the headlight of an oncoming locomotive breaks into view.
Monday, it was the silvery 18:40 Amtrak from Los Angeles, rumbling in on time to the sleepy Salinas depot.
“Trains are colorful, fun and loud,” Lawrence said.
“That much metal rolling at 70 miles per hour always impressed me.”
Lawrence loves trains. He photographs them and writes about them. His work appears regularly in train magazines, books, calendars and advertisements.
Yet trains represent only half the equation of his professional curiosity. He’s fascinated, too, by roadside America, especially that represented by the art deco diners and mom-and-pop motels along Route 66.
Defined by its neon nostalgia, immortalized by the classic song, “Route 66,” the fabled east-west highway maintains an allure for all who love America’s motoring past.
“On Route 66, you get away from the McDonalds and Holiday Inns,” Lawrence said. “You feel the personality. It’s oddball. It’s quirky.
“That’s part of the fun.”
Lawrence is creating a book, “Route 66 Railway,” to be published in the fall by the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation.
Its pages will deal with trains but also with Route 66. The two mythologies merge, after all, along stretches -- about 800 miles worth from New Mexico into California -- where tracks and asphalt run side-by-side.
“This will be a visual road trip,” Lawrence said. “The first third is a history. Then it shifts into a travelogue.”
Credit for his early Route 66/railroad fascination goes to his parents, he said.
The family lived in Fontana, an hour east of Los Angeles. Lawrence’s father, also a train lover, would take the family on trips to the desert “resort” town of Barstow, which featured a sprawling Santa Fe Railroad yard and a diesel shop of matching scale.
“We’d spend the night in the El Rancho Barstow on Route 66,” Lawrence said. “It was this classic motor court with red and yellow neon.”
Rooms were arranged U-shape around the swimming pool. Lawrence splashed about in the blue-hued chlorinated waters, while the town baked under a blinding white heat.
“When it got a little cooler, we’d all go off to the train yards to check things out,” he said.
The family traveled on trains, too. They’d hop an Amtrak bound for Utah or for Colorado or up to the Pacific Northwest. They’d ride in a “roomette,” a cabin and mini-bedroom.
With Route 66, Lawrence hopes his book brings to readers a sense of the romance of that highway.
He’ll also explore the ties between the railroad and Route 66. He’ll look at how the tracks linked Chicago to L.A.
He’ll explore how the roadway became an escape for families fleeing Dust Bowl clouds -- as in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“Route 66 is also about a time in our country when travel was not so sanitized and comfortable, a time before the rush to get to the end,” he said.
“On Route 66, the journey was the destination.” - Dave Nordstrand, The Salinas Californian
CANADIAN ROCKY MOUNTAIN BEAR CUBS RIDE THE RAILS
A trio of hobo bear cubs have been hopping trains in the Rocky Mountains, sparking concern from wildlife officials.
The black bear cubs first climbed onto a Canadian Pacific Railway car on May 31 in Yoho National Park, which is in the Rockies in British Columbia, about 30 kilometres west of Lake Louise, Alberta.
Parks Canada wardens suspect the cubs climbed up to feed on grain with their mother, who managed to hop off when the train started moving.
The distressed cubs were stuck until the crew of another train spotted them. The train stopped in Field, British Columbia, and wardens brought the cubs back to their mother.
But two days later, the cubs boarded a train car for a second time. This time, two residents of Field heard the bears' cries and the trio was once again reunited with Mom.
Jim Pissot, the executive director of Defenders of Wildlife Canada, said that it's not uncommon for bears to eat spilled grain on train tracks in the Rocky Mountain national parks -- but he said it's unusual for wild animals to climb onto trains.
However, he pointed out that, as bears come out of hibernation, they are desperate to find food.
"Bears are supposed to be a bit leery of human structures and humans, but when there's food involved, that trumps everything," he said.
Pissot said he hopes the cubs don't climb onto a train for a third time. He said Canadian Pacific should try to prevent bears from climbing onto cars by planning its stops in less remote areas, such as the towns of Canmore and Banff.
"I think the CP Railway should absolutely not park or stop trains within the park, particularly in sensitive bear areas."
Breanne Feigel, a spokeswoman for Canadian Pacific, said trains carrying grain rarely roll to a halt in the national parks, but occasionally they must stop to let another train go by.
"Our company is certainly trying to do what we can realistically to reduce any contact with wildlife."
The company is investing $20 million to identify and repair 6,000 of its cars that are responsible for spilled grain. - CBC News
FALLING OFF TRACK
Caption reads: Sections of track along the Bailey Branch are in poor condition with broken ties and misshapen track, requiring the train to maintain low speeds. (Casey Campbell/The Corvallis Gazette-Times)
CORVALLIS, OR --
The bright orange Portland & Western locomotive rolls out of Corvallis at a stately 5 mph. It’s a fine pace for sightseeing, but it’s much too slow for a freight run -- and it’s about to get even slower.
“This is pretty nasty up here,” warns engineer Max Dilley, gazing ahead at an obvious dogleg in an otherwise straight stretch of track just south of town. “It’s like a snake.”
Dilley eases off the throttle as he reaches the damaged section, but the engine still lurches and rolls like a drunken cowboy navigating a barroom. It stays on the rails, but this stretch will be even trickier on the return trip, with loaded cars in tow.
If the Portland & Western has its way, last week’s run could turn out to be the last ever for the Bailey Branch, a rickety 23-mile stretch of railroad from Corvallis to Dawson that was built in the early 1900s and has seen only sporadic maintenance since then.
On five of its previous six trips, the train jumped the tracks somewhere along the line -- despite safety rules that set the top speed at 7 mph.
On June 4, citing safety concerns, the Portland & Western announced plans to embargo the branch line as a first step toward permanent abandonment.
That’s not going to happen without a fight. The 11 shippers on the Bailey Branch say the railroad is abandoning them -- and walking away from a promise to provide a much-needed service.
“We’ve already sold 10,000 tons of (livestock feed) pellets by rail,” said Larry Venell of Venell Farms, one of the largest shippers on the line. Rail delivery is stipulated in the contracts, which may now have to be renegotiated.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with that,” Venell said. “We’ve got to get them there by rail, or it’s going to cost us a lot of money.”
The embargo is the latest twist in a love-hate relationship that dates back to 1993, when several shortline operators engaged in a bidding war to lease 185 miles of low-volume track in the Willamette Valley, including the Bailey Branch, from the Southern Pacific.
The eventual winner was an East Coast company, Genesee & Wyoming, which set up the Willamette & Pacific Railroad to operate a cross-shaped section of track running from Albany west to Toledo and from Newberg south to Corvallis and on to Monroe, with a final westward jog to Dawson.
In 1995 Genesee & Wyoming established a sister line, the Portland & Western, to run routes out of Portland with a connection to the W&P at Newberg. Today the two lines operate about 520 miles of track in western Oregon and do business under the Portland & Western name.
Shippers on the Bailey Branch had little love for the Southern Pacific, which they claim never supplied enough cars and which pushed for abandonment of the branch in 1984. So when representatives of Genesee & Wyoming came courting back in ’93, they found a receptive audience.
“They took us to lunch,” recalled Larry Venell, whose family had cut back its once-substantial rail shipments to maybe 10 cars a year, in part because of dissatisfaction with SP’s service. “They wanted to know what they could do to make this thing work.”
The Bailey Branch shippers said they were ready to boost their freight volumes for a new operator, but they wanted some assurances in return, said Wayne Giesy, then a partner in the line’s biggest customer, the Hull-Oakes Lumber Mill at the terminus in Dawson.
“We wanted 20-year service and through-line rates,” Giesy said. “They agreed to it.”
It was a “gentlemen’s agreement,” Giesy said, with nothing put in writing, but at first the new relationship worked well for both sides. The shippers got the cars they needed, and the new Willamette & Pacific got a steady increase in business.
The W&P and its sister line, the Portland & Western, continued to expand, as did their parent company. Genesee & Wyoming went public in 1996 and today is the nation’s second-largest shortline operator, with 48 railroads and 10,500 miles of track. Last year the Greenwich, Conn.-based corporation earned $134 million on revenues of $478.9 million.
At the same time, however, the Bailey Branch -- built with the light-gauge rail of an earlier era -- was deteriorating, and the repairs it needed were costly. Derailments increased, and the railroad balked at investing in what was still a low-volume line compared to the rest of its system.
The problem came to a head in the summer of 2000, when the line seemed in danger of closing. But Benton County officials came to the rescue, helping to broker an unusual deal with the Legislature: If the state would pay to replace worn-out ties on the worst stretches of track, the Portland & Western would keep the line running. Over the next few years, the state kicked in $350,000 to improve the Bailey Branch.
The shippers did their part as well: They agreed to a $49-a-carload surcharge to help pay for maintenance.
The surcharge remains in effect, but today the line is in worse shape than ever, leaving shippers to question just how their payments have been spent.
Portland & Western President Bruce Carswell said all that money had gone into repairs for the Bailey Branch, along with additional investments by the railroad, though he declined to specify how much.
“The line needs well over $1 million in immediate repairs just to get it in operable condition, and probably two to three times that to bring it up to a reasonable standard,” Carswell said.
“We’re at a point now where we just can’t afford to continue to put money into it, even with the surcharge.”
No one bought into the promise of revitalized rail service more than Larry Venell.
In 1996, Venell Farms spent nearly $1 million to build a covered loading facility and started moving everything it could by rail. Annual shipments have averaged around 200 carloads the last two years and have been as high as 300, Venell said.
Now he feels betrayed.
“They said they were going to be here for the next 20 years,” Venell said.
“I don’t think they ever intended to put any money in it. They were just going to use up what it had left and walk away. I think the community was sold a bill of goods.”
Various plans have been put forward to salvage the Bailey Branch, most recently a request by Congressman Peter DeFazio to the Union Pacific Railroad -- which acquired the line in its 1996 purchase of the Southern Pacific, along with the SP’s shortline lease agreements -- to donate the troubled branch line to Benton County. The Union Pacific responded with an offer to sell the line for $2.1 million, a price county officials rejected as too high.
While the Portland & Western was within its rights to halt service on the Bailey Branch because of the legitimate safety concerns on the line, an embargo is only a temporary solution.
By law, the railroad has 60 days to either repair the track or apply for a discontinuance of service to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads. At the same time, the Union Pacific Railroad would apply for abandonment.
While the Staggers Act made it easier for railroads to abandon unprofitable lines, getting approval is far from a sure thing, said STB spokesman Rudy St. Louis.
“We’d have to balance the economic harm to the shippers with the economic harm to the railroad,” he said.
But the longer the Bailey Branch stays out of service, he added, the more likely the STB would be to grant an abandonment request.
The shippers have no intention of allowing the matter to drag out, however. In a meeting Monday night at Venell Farms, they decided to force the issue.
On Thursday, their attorney fired off a letter to Carswell and Mack Shumate, senior attorney for the Union Pacific, demanding that the railroads move immediately to an abandonment filing.
“Unless an abandonment application is filed at the STB in the very near future,” wrote the shippers’ lawyer, railroad litigation specialist Thomas McFarland of Chicago, “I intend to file a formal complaint at the STB in behalf of the Oregon Shipper Group against your companies seeking, as damages, the additional transportation and related costs being paid by the Shippers as a result of your companies’ failure to provide rail transportation on reasonable request.”
As alternatives to a costly legal battle, the letter suggests that the Union Pacific either donate the line to Benton County, sell it to the shippers at a more reasonable price or sublease it to a smaller shortline willing to take it on.
All those options, however, have been previously considered and rejected by the railroads.
Carswell, for one, isn’t counting on a different outcome this time.
“There’s possibly a solution out there that I haven’t thought of,” he said. “But I’m not optimistic at this point.”
Love-hate relationship: Shippers and railroads
Shippers need railroads and railroads need shippers, but it’s rarely an equitable relationship.
It used to be that shippers had the upper hand, with a regulatory structure designed to protect their interests from predatory pricing and uncertain service. But by the 1970s, the U.S. freight rail industry was on the brink of collapse as restrictive rules dragged several major carriers into bankruptcy.
The result was deregulation.
In 1980 Congress passed the Staggers Act, which created a more market-driven system that led to a wave of consolidation, with the number of major carriers shrinking from 40 to just four today.
While lowering rates for most shippers, Staggers also liberalized abandonment rules, allowing the mainline carriers to walk away from unprofitable routes and leading to the rise of shortline operators.
Shortline railroads started off slowly in Oregon but picked up steam throughout the 1990s, with strong growth continuing into this decade.
In 1992, Oregon had 14 shortlines with just 207 miles of track. Those railroads moved 8,685 carloads and brought in $5.1 million in revenue, according to ODOT’s Rail Division. Last year, 21 shortlines moved 195,391 carloads on 1,296 miles of track to bring in revenues of $77.5 million.
The Portland & Western had a big share of that business, moving nearly 97,000 carloads on its 520-mile system and generating revenues of about $36 million. Its Bailey Branch, however, was only a small fraction of that business with just 630 carloads.
Bob Melbo, the rail planner for the Oregon Department of Transportation and the first president of the old Willamette & Pacific, said ODOT will fight the railroad’s efforts to abandon the Bailey Branch.
But he added that, from the railroad’s perspective, the economics of the south Benton County branch line are dismal.
“I think they’re basically between a rock and a hard place,” Melbo said. “On the one hand, they can’t hardly operate without derailing, and yet they can’t justify putting the money into it to repair it.” - Bennett Hall, The Corvallis Gazette-Times
KCSM CELEBRATES 10TH ANNIVERSARY SINCE PRIVATIZATION
On June 24, 1997, TFM, the railroad known today as Kansas City Southern de Mexico, began operations as a private company. On June 12, 2007, the company began the celebration of its tenth anniversary at the KCSM offices in Mexico City. Participating in the celebration were KCS chairman and chief executive officer Mike Haverty, KCS president and chief operating officer Art Shoener and KCSM president and executive representative Jose Zozaya, as well as employees from Mexico City, Valle de Mexico, Queretaro and Toluca.
The celebration, which took place in conjunction with the senior staff meeting, consisted of a town hall meeting, lunch and recognition of 84 employees who had been with the company since its start up ten years ago. Each received a chrome spike to commemorate the occasion. A mariachi band made the celebration even more festive.
In an address to employees, Haverty reflected on his memories of the company in 1997 and how far it had come in the last ten years, especially the last two years. Shoener talked about the capital investment projects that are significant to the company's future, and Zozaya expressed his appreciation to employees for all their contributions to the company in the past and going forward. - KCS News
RAIL HEARINGS ARE REASONABLE
As legislators prepare to call it quits for 2007, we hope they don't overlook an important bill sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican.
HB 2020 would require railroads to go through the same type of hearing that other utilities face before exercising the power of eminent domain. However, because of federal authority, the state's power would be limited.
The issue arose after Union Pacific said it plans to build a major rail yard near Picacho Peak. The yard would be over an aquifer, near a historic site and across the highway from Picacho Peak State Park.
Under Paton's bill, the railroad would have to go before the Arizona Corporation Commission and explain what alternatives have been explored.
The ACC would hold a hearing similar to those for electric, natural gas or other utilities.
But because railroads are under federal oversight, the ACC couldn't stop the project. However, the hearing would shine a light on the proposals.
This is a reasonable process to require of railroads, which have vast authority to operate on public land. The Legislature should pass HB 2020. - Editorial Opinion, The Tucson Citizen
PRIVATE MUSEUM SHOWCASES TRAINS, CARS
MIDLAND, TX --
A friend told me I should visit with Jane and Delmer McAfee in Odessa, Texas.
"They have a bunch of railroad stuff and some old cars," said the friend.
What an understatement. A sign on their entrance wall reads "Texon Santa Fe Depot Museum." Her museum is open by appointment only.
I noticed two cabooses sitting on railroad tracks next to a train depot.
Jane found the original Texon depot building at Sheffield where it had been used as a feed store. She bought it and had it shipped to Odessa.
The first thing Jane showed me in the depot was a talking mannequin dressed up like a ticket agent. Jane flipped a switch and the mannequin came to life, telling me about Santa Rita No. 1, the discovery well of the Permian Basin, drilled in 1923 near Texon. She spent a year restoring it. The building also has three sets of elaborate Lionel trains.
We stepped outside and climbed aboard a railroad gang car. It has a handle that you pump by hand to make the little car travel along 100 yards of track. Jane says when kids come, this is their favorite thing about the museum. The railroads replaced the gang cars with pickups.
We then toured the cabooses. One is completely restored; the other is in the process of getting back to the way it was in the late 1940s.
Jane likes Santa Fe because she grew up in Temple and Santa Fe trains ran through the town. Her daddy loved model trains.
Jane's husband, Delmer, has three or four steel buildings on the place to keep his cars. He has 90. The real premium vehicles are kept in an impressive underground garage that has an elevator to get the cars in and out. He spent a year building that garage. On the floor above he has a 1950s soda fountain complete with two jukeboxes pumping out 50-year-old hits.
Delmer loved drag racing as a boy. Back then he would see cars he liked, but couldn't afford. He bought them later when he could. He still has the 1959 Chevy he had in high school. He has dozens of other Chevys from the '50s and '60s. He has other types of vehicles besides Chevrolets, like a 1941 Willys.
"That was the year I was born," says Delmer. "When we used to go to the drag strip, we loved to watch Willyses run. They were the fastest things there. I finally managed to get me one and I worked on it a little. It's got a 500-inch Chevrolet motor in it with a blower on it. 826 horsepower."
He has a split-window 1963 Corvette that was built just one year. He has had that car more than 20 years. Sometimes he drives one of his vehicles to work at his oil-field business. - Tumbleweed Smith, The Midland Reporter-Telegram
HENDERSON, TEXAS DEPOT MUSEUM BREAKS GROUND FOR COTTON GIN
HENDERSON, TX --
Until oil was discovered in 1930, cotton was the primary cash crop of Rusk County. At its peak, Rusk County contained 57 cotton gins, but the cotton industry has since declined in the county, according to Henderson Depot Museum literature. The museum will soon be installing the last fully equipped gin in Rusk County.
The museum broke ground Friday for the foundation of the gin. The two-story gin was built in 1935 in Mount Enterprise and operated there until 1941. The gin was donated to the museum by the Mark F. Barts family.
"This was cotton country," said Susan Weaver, museum director.
Weaver said the installation of the gin would help preserve the heritage of the county. The gin will also complete the museum's long-term goal to have exhibits educating the public on all of the major economic factors of the county's past. The museum has a working saw mill, an oil derrick and drilling rig and an exhibit on clay products.
Weaver said the addition of the gin is expected to generate local economic development. She said having the only completed and restored cotton gin in East Texas will draw tourists to the city and museum. The museum has also hired local contractors to assist in the moving and installation of the gin.
"We are real excited about being able to preserve the equipment," Weaver said.
Once the gin is installed, Weaver said the museum would invite people to come and be educated about the impact and history of the cotton industry. The gin equipment is in such good condition that it might be operational once it is installed. She said the museum also will be installing an audio tour for its economic exhibits.
The relocation of the gin is being funded by the Rusk County Historical Foundation. Weaver said the project is expected to cost $125,000, and $70,000 has been raised. The foundation has five years to move the gin and clear the property. - Randy Ross, The Longview News-Journal
Dear Editor, The Advertiser,
I just finished ready your article (about Thursday's train accident) and have some thought for you.
I believe if you were to investigate the situation you would find the railroad tracks ran the same corridor for many years as compared to the car traffic that currently runs across those tracks or next to those tracks. Unfortunately, people tend to forget that trains do not move off those tracks, so the train did not seek out the truck driver and strike him initially, after all, the truck moved in front of the train. How difficult is it for people to realize there is no "winning" when trying to beat the train. Do people really feel their lives are so unimportant, that they want to continually take a chance?
On a continuous basis railroad employees are reminded about safety at and away from their work place. Safety must become a way of live on the railroad; it is a dangerous job and unforgiving when you forget to work safely. The people who try to beat the trains have no idea what accidents do to those employees manning the engine. It is never pleasant to know someone was fatally injured and you were involved, especially when it was totally unnecessary.
If the railroad were to stop running on every track owned you and your neighbors would being paying a lot more for groceries and other needs than you are because they would have to be transported by truck. That would lead to an outpouring of too many trucks on the highways and another complaint. So as a reminder, the crossings are not dangerous, the people preferring to beat the trains are dangerous. The car is not restricted to running on rails; the train is. - Judy Curtis, CSX Employee, Clanton, AL, Letter to the Editor, The Clanton Advertiser
IN KENOSHA'S TRACKS? HOW A STREETCAR SYSTEM WORKS IN SOUTHEASTERN WISCONSIN
MADISON, WI --
Streetcars are the kind of thing you need to ride on and see to truly appreciate, according to Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
And Kenosha, just a two-hour drive from Madison, is the closest place to look at an operating streetcar system.
The mayor said he went there as a tourist last year and rode the city's restored vintage trains that make a 1.9-mile loop around two dozen downtown blocks that include the city's newest museum, built in 2000 along with the streetcar route. When the project was conceived nearly 10 years before that, Kenosha's downtown was suffering from manufacturing losses and other economic pressures that were leaving empty storefronts.
Lou Rugani, a Kenosha radio personality and streetcar skeptic who has been won over, told Cieslewicz that one out of every three people who go to Kenosha go to ride the streetcar.
"It a boon to tourism," Cieslewicz said. "And tourism is one of the reasons for a streetcar here."
However, on a recent Monday, there wasn't a tourist in sight on Kenosha's downtown lakefront.
The weather was glorious. The sun was glinting off the water. The breeze was mild enough to keep the small crowd gathered at a transit transfer point comfortable in the 80-degree heat without messing up their hair.
But none of that crowd got on the streetcar. They were waiting for buses.
The empty streetcars are not unusual, according to both the driver that day and the head of the Kenosha Area Transit system, Len Brandrup. On most spring and summer weekdays, 50 riders a day is normal number on the $5 million system. About 200 a day is the average for spring and summer weekends. There are fewer riders in the winter, when Brandrup cuts back the hours of service so people don't see empty cars going by as often.
However, just as for Cieslewicz and Madison's main streetcar consultant Charlie Hales of Portland, Oregon, streetcars are not just about ridership for Brandrup. They are about sparking and directing development, especially downtown redevelopment.
But unlike in Madison, downtown development provided the opportunity for Kenosha's streetcar project, rather than the streetcar fostering further downtown development as is hoped for here.
Cieslewicz said despite such differences, the Kenosha system is relevant to Madison because "they did a great job of tightening down on costs. They looked at every way to keep costs down. We'd do that, too."
The fact that Kenosha's streetcars went in as Harbor Park was being developed to occupy a 70-acre brownfield, formerly occupied by the American Motors plant, is part of the reason the system cost so much less per mile than the one being proposed for Madison, Brandrup said. Hale estimates the Madison starter system would cost $15 million per mile. Kenosha's cost about $2.5 million per mile.
Building the starter streetcar loop at the same time Harbor Park was being developed allowed some construction costs to be applied to the privately developed 350-unit condominium project and the city-financed public museum on the same site rather than the streetcar project. It also meant that existing streets and utilities were not torn up by the project, Brandrup said.
Similarly, the cost of the $1 million streetcar maintenance facility is not factored into the per-mile cost of the Kenosha system as it is in the Madison streetcar plan. The Kenosha maintenance facility is at a bus transfer point, which apparently justifies not apportioning its cost to the streetcar system, even though there is also a streetcar stop on the premises.
And the nature of the system's 17 stops themselves helped keep Kenosha's costs down. They are basically signs on the pavement, much like a conventional bus stop. The stops planned for the Madison system involve extending the sidewalk out to the tracks and then ramping that sidewalk section up to the level of the bottom of the streetcars for easy, direct roll-on and roll-off access.
The costlier stops did not have to be created in Kenosha for two main reasons. First, half of the Kenosha track runs not in the street, but in a grassy boulevard in the middle of the street -- a choice made possible, in part, because the roads were being constructed new and the whole condo and museum development could be designed to accommodate that.
Secondly, there was no way to make the Kenosha streetcars roll-on and roll-off anyway. The system uses five streetcars built in St. Louis in 1951 and used in Toronto, Canada, until 1970.
They are high-floor cars. That allows the accelerators, which transfer electric power collected from the overhead wire to the motors that turn the axles that make the wheels go around, and all the other electronics, to be surface-mounted on the underside of the cars. However, that height also makes raising the stops to the same height as the floors of the cars impractical.
So, each car is equipped with a lift that slides out past the steps that most riders use to access the cars and then lowers to the sidewalk level -- much like the paratransit vans Madison Metro uses.
The Madison cost estimates are based on modern, low-floor cars that are much more expensive to buy. Kenosha bought its cars for about $20,000 each and then put about $50,000 in each one to get them ready for use. New, low-floor streetcars run more like $2.5 million each.
Some of Kenosha's initial cost savings is now resulting in higher operating costs. Even with the luck of finding a railroad buff hobbyist already on staff who could become the system's full-time maintenance man as a labor of love, there are no parts to repair things and no place for maintenance staff to get any training or call for support.
Maintenance worker Brad Preston was hand-making replacement streetcar doors out of wood this spring. Yet, as he explained, "Their electrical system is at the heart of the cars."
Brandrup admitted that Kenosha is very lucky to have a civil service employee who is both a gifted carpenter and woodworker, as well as a good mechanic and electrician.
"Piggybacking really lowered our costs," Brandrup said, although he wasn't the transit director at the time. Joe McCarthy was head of the Kenosha transit system then. He died of a heart attack two months after it opened.
Brandrup wants to expand the system. The current system is what he describes as a vertical loop against the lake, serving Kenosha's historic downtown and linking Harbor Park, the museums (a second museum is currently under construction with a planned March 2008 opening), the two marinas and the waterfront park there to the Metra commuter rail station that provides service into Chicago, 50 miles to the south.
Cieslewicz said this is the third way the Kenosha system is relevant to Madisonians. "Our streetcar system is being planned to connect to commuter rail," he said.
The proposed four-mile starter system on the isthmus would connect to proposed commuter rail at the Kohl Center and Monona Terrace, according to Dave Trowbridge, who is the staffer for both the city's streetcar committee and the city-county partnership task force working on commuter rail.
Brandrup wants to add a horizontal loop to Kenosha's system, tying it to another 30-acre brownfield site ready for redevelopment (the former American Brass site). This new loop would go through a second Kenosha business and retail district known as Uptown. He also wants to expand the downtown loop farther south.
All together, Brandup's additions would add about four miles to the system, making it about six miles long. He predicts it will cost about $4 million per mile to add the extra four miles. In other words, $16 million, just a little more than the projected cost of one mile for Madison. - Mary Yeater Rathbun, The Madison Capital Times
NEAR-MISS ON LIGHT RAIL LINE
Video clip here:
PHOENIX, AZ --
The construction worker came within an arm's length of walking into the light rail vehicle. The consequences of one more step could have been deadly. A video posted on the "You Tube" website last month shows the near-miss. The worker was walking across the tracks when the train operator sounded a warning bell in the nick of time. It's unknown who shot the video and who the worker was.
METRO light rail officials say they take safety seriously. A spokeswoman tells 12 News that all workers who go near the tracks must take a safety class first. METRO has also held meetings and sent safety brochures to businesses and residences near the test track. That includes telling people to only cross the street in crosswalks and to stop, look and listen before walking on the tracks. The light rail awareness program will expand as more track becomes operational.
Since April, METRO has been testing its electric light rail vehicles on a section of Washington between 48th and 56th Streets. Other cities with light rail have experienced dozens of accidents during the first months of operations. So far the Valley's line has had no accidents involving the trains. The 20-mile track will open in December 2008. - Melissa Blasius, KPNX-TV12, Phoenix, AZ
COMMUTER RAIL TAX TO BE DISCUSSED
ST. CLOUD, MN --
St. Cloud and Stearns County, Minnesota officials will meet Monday to tune up a taxing authority they consider necessary to bring commuter rail service to the area.
At a special meeting before the City Council's regular Monday meeting, the two bodies will consider making the Stearns County/St. Cloud Regional Rail Authority into a county-only affair.
They are considering the move so if it begins levying tax dollars to pay for the proposed Northstar commuter rail line, some St. Cloud residents won't be taxed twice.
"East Side people would be taxed twice otherwise, by virtue of being St. Cloud residents who are already being taxed as part of the Benton and Sherburne County rail authorities," said Bob Johnson, St. Cloud City Council member and a city representative on the Northstar Corridor Development Authority board.
Commuter rail service between Big Lake and Minneapolis is scheduled to begin by late 2009.
A potential second phase from Big Lake to Rice is being studied.
The rail authority was created in 1994 to preserve abandoned railway for future trail use.
In 2003, city and county officials restructured it to make it able to levy taxes on property within 5 miles of railroad tracks as a possible way to pay the local costs of Northstar.
So far, the authority has not exercised that authority, but that could change next year.
In April, Stearns County joined Northstar, agreeing to pay $50,000 this year and a percentage of the corridor's local costs in upcoming years.
That could amount to $250,000 a year, said Leigh Lenzmeier, Stearns County commissioner and head of the rail authority.
"We'd like to be able to build it into our 2008 budget and this would be the way to do that," he said. "The stars have to align, but it's worth a shot."
Under the agreement, St. Cloud would retain two members on the five-member board, but its administrative duties would be transferred to Stearns County from the city.
"The city still has an interest in Northstar," Mayor Dave Kleis said. "We're strongly supportive of efforts to extend it here." - Lawrence Schumacher, The St. Cloud Times