Perry promotes safety pact in San Antonio as train derails
UP agrees to look at putting tracks outside cities.
March 19, 2005
Patrick Driscoll and Mary Moreno
San Antonio Express-News
As Gov. Rick Perry announced a historic agreement Friday to spark efforts to get freight trains out of urban areas, emergency workers were rushing to San Antonio's latest train derailment just 15 miles away.
The wreck turned out to be minor, but the irony wasn't lost on local officials.
"It just goes to show, the long-term answer is to move the freight out of these areas," said County Judge Nelson Wolff, who joined Perry and Union Pacific Chairman Richard Davidson to announce such a plan.
A memorandum of understanding, signed by Perry and Davidson at the company's rail yard near KellyUSA, does not immediately commit any funds to track relocation or set deadlines.
It says public and private funds should be used to build tracks around the state's major cities, and that such costs should match, respectively, public and private benefits.
"That concept is key to making this happen," Davidson said.
Relocating through freight out of city centers would reduce hazardous cargo being transported through populated areas, make rail-street crossings safer, enable railroads to ship products faster, and open up old lines for commuter rail service or redevelopment as roads.
"It'll provide greater peace of mind for families worried about hazardous materials passing through their neighborhoods," Perry said.
Local fears shot to new levels last year after several major train wrecks that claimed five lives and, in two instances, released poisons.
A collision of two trains last June in rural Bexar County spewed a cloud of chorine that killed four people, injured about 50, and left officials wondering what the results would have been had it happened in the middle of San Antonio.
After Friday's train derailment near the Quarry Market, some witnesses called 911 and said they saw a plume of smoke. Emergency responders carefully approached the wreck from downwind but soon discovered no toxic chemicals were involved.
A set of wheels on a UP car had come off the tracks after a load of aluminum tubes shifted and some rolled off. The tubes apparently raised a lot of dust.
Also, one tube hit a railcar carrying coal, puncturing it, said District Fire Chief Randy Jenkins. None of the 107 cars in the train carried hazardous materials. And nobody was hurt.
The railcar went off the track under a bridge near the Quarry Golf Course. The derailment caused the train to stop, blocking off Basse, Jones Maltsberger and Sunset roads just east of U.S. 281 for about two hours.
Although the area where the derailment occurred is unusual in San Antonio in that the tracks are so close to a major shopping center and a busy freeway, Jenkins said the approach to train derailments is standard, regardless of where they occur.
"I'm not aware of a plan for that particular area," he said. "The area is unique, but the response is not unique. It's pretty standard what we would do."
Jenkins said the recent spate of train derailments also has given emergency workers valuable experience on how to react to one.
UP has averaged two dozen mostly minor wrecks a year in Bexar County over the past four years. The company reported 23 in 2004.
About 60 to 70 trains roll daily through the city, a crossroads for UP traffic in Texas . Some of the common chemicals that pass through are sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide and chlorine.
Rerouting freight trains will not be easy, a Texas Department of Transportation official said last month.
Efforts in San Antonio likely will stretch into the next decade and could cost more than $1 billion, said Mario Medina, the department's multimodal director. And until new tracks are built, the number of trains is expected to surge.
An answer could come from the Trans Texas Corridor , a 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines to be built across the state over 50 years. State officials signed a contract last week with a private consortium to develop plans for the segment east of Interstate 35.
But no funding or specific projects to relocate rail lines have been identified, Perry said. The agreement with UP simply lays out guidelines to move forward.
© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: