Train-blocked streets irk Inner Southeast neighbors
It was the October board meeting of the Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood District Association (HAND), on the evening of October 17, but Brooklyn neighbors, and those from other nearby neighborhoods, had been invited to attend – to discuss long delays sometimes encountered at the S.E. 8th, 11th, and 12th Avenue railroad crossings.
"The agenda tonight includes a representative from United Pacific Railroad (UP), which is why we've invited people from other neighborhoods to come," announced HAND President Susan Pearce. "We want to learn what's going on in the Brooklyn Yard; and why we see the patterns of train movements that we do, where the roads are blocked for long time.
"We want to know whether it's due a long, slow train moving by, or if the trains are idling, or if – in the process of 'building trains' – the locomotive comes out far enough out to trigger the [crossing] arm, even though the train is not visible," Pearce explained. "TriMet's MAX Orange Line trains go through quickly; but when long UP trains come through, followed by another light rail train, "motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists can wait to cross the tracks for as much as 45 minutes to an hour!"
After introductions, Pearce introduced Union Pacific Railroad Director of Public Affairs Aaron Hunt to the 25 people attending the meeting.
Asked to address the chronically-blocked crossings, he responded, "There are about twenty railroad tracks in Brooklyn Yard, where we're sorting containers and building trains, or taking trains apart. That – putting cars together and taking them apart – is how we build trains, so trains can arrive at their destinations with the correct cargo. Throughout all that process, we've had some situations where you're seeing 8th, 11th, and 12th avenues blocked for half hour, 45 minutes, an hour or more," conceded Hunt.
"We have a hypothesis for what's causing that; we still have manually-operated track switches in Brooklyn Yard," Hunt explained. "As trains are being built the conductor has to get off the locomotive, hand-throw switches, and then walk back to the locomotive and get into the locomotive and pull it back into the yard.
"These kind of operations take a long time, and it's being done as it has always been done – partly because when the conductor walks to the front and back of the train, the conductor can inspect the train while doing the walk," Hunt said. "So, our hypothesis is that if we converted those switches to power switches, operated remotely by our dispatchers, it could mitigate this issue at these intersections."
The cost to upgrade the switches in the "millions of dollars" he said, and added that, "TriMet and Union Pacific have been meeting for several months and collecting data from the crossings, and analyzing the data, to make sure that we have the information we need to see in order to confirm that this hypothesis is accurate."
They'll continue to "collect data" for another half-year, he said. Should their hypothesis be accurate, it would then take another year to modernize the railyard switches.
Asked about slow-moving freight trains that also unpredictably block the intersections, Hunt pointed that long trains can often be going to, or coming from, the Steel Bridge. "The Steel Bridge allows only a very limited speed. We own the bridge; it has limited speeds because of the physics of the curvature of the railroad track as it goes onto the bridge.
"So, a very slow moving freight train could be approaching the Steel Bridge, while a significant portion of the train remains in distant crossings," Hunt said.
One person at the meeting, neighbor Jeff Rames who lives near S.E. 15th Avenue and Woodward Street, complained, "We've had a long ongoing struggle with Union Pacific to stop parking the locomotives there, where they idle for hours on end – often eight or ten hours – shaking our home all the time they're parked there. You talk about safety; you don't talk about our safety; we can't sleep and can't breathe clean air."
Hunt replied, "We have a crew-change pad right there by Jeff's house; we spot locomotives there, where the crews come and disembark. And Jeff is right, we do idle trains there. We keep the locomotives running because it maintains the 'air test' in the brake system, so that train will stay in place when parked there."
Other than perhaps installing an air brake pressurizing system next to the tracks, Hunt didn't offer a solution to that problem.
So, the next time you're stopped at one of these crossings, waiting for a slow-moving or stopped freight train, now you'll know why – and perhaps you might find comfort in the thought that the situation could change in a year or two.