COMPTON — The day after a freight train derailed practically on the doorstep of City Hall, Compton officials said they would sue Southern Pacific Railroad to make the carrier move its track.
The city may also seek damages from the railroad for disrupting downtown businesses.
At a press conference Tuesday, only a short distance from where crews were finishing repairs on the broken Willowbrook Avenue line, Compton Chief Deputy City Atty. Legrand H. Clegg II acknowledged that there is no precedent for a damage suit. But he said city officials intend to explore "every available legal avenue" in their desire to prevent another accident.
A spokesman for Southern Pacific said railroad officials would have no comment until any suits are filed.
City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. said Wednesday that one court complaint would be lodged this week. It would demand that the railroad move its track. But he said it is unclear when, or if, the city will proceed with a separate action seeking accident damages.
On Monday, a Southern Pacific spokesman blamed "a failed rail" for the early morning accident that saw seven freight cars skip off the Willowbrook track in front of the City Hall-Los Angeles County branch courthouse complex.
No one was injured. But because one tanker contained about 30,000 gallons of flammable butane, fire officials ordered the evacuation of five blocks, closing government offices as well as about 50 businesses in and around the Compton Towne Center.
$350,000 Sales Loss
Acting City Manager James Goins said the businesses lost about $350,000 in sales when they were forced to close while the wreckage was being cleared.
Although railroad spokesman John J. Tierney had questioned whether the daylong evacuation was necessary, Fire Chief Monroe Smith said he remains convinced that it was. "We're fortunate that this occurred at 7 o'clock in the morning," Smith said. If the Towne Center had been crowded with Christmas shoppers, he continued, "it could have been a disastrous situation."
Mayor Walter R. Tucker said the city has had an "ongoing battle" with Southern Pacific as well as developers of the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Light Rail project, which intends to run a trolley along the same Willowbrook right-of-way.
Councilman Floyd A. James said he examined the fractured rail on Monday and found "that a portion of the track had a new break and another part of the track had an old break that was rusty" and undetected by railroad inspection crews that had checked the track a few days earlier. "Therefore, it is my feeling that the tracks are not safe," he said.
James said that, in addition to the "combustible fuels" often shipped along the route, "nerve gas is shipped through here also. And if (a derailment involving such chemicals) happens to us, you're talking about a real disaster. We could have an awful lot of lives lost."
Shift Freight Traffic
Goins' assistant, Edmund Sotelo, said the city wants Southern Pacific to shift all freight traffic from the Willowbrook line to a track that runs parallel on Alameda Street, a few blocks away. Then, only the proposed light rail would run along Willowbrook. City officials also want both the freight and light rail lines either raised or lowered at major intersections so as not to disturb automobile traffic or impede emergency vehicles.
"It's not impractical to ask the railroad to go around Compton," Councilman Maxcy D. Filer said. "In fact, I think it's practical to ask them to do it. Circumstances have changed (with recent business growth in the city), therefore the railroad has to change. . . . "
Southern Pacific has discussed diverting the freight traffic, but contends that the Willowbrook track is best suited to carry the increasing volume of containerized cargo being transfered from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. In fact, Sotelo said, railroad officials have flatly stated that the parallel track along Alameda is "of a lesser quality."
"These facts compound our concerns," Sotelo said, because "the better quality track failed yesterday."
'Complained . . . for Years'
"We have complained to the railroads for years about the conditions in which they maintain the railroad crossings," James said. "If you go to Alondra and Willowbrook where the railroad is crossing, it's the worst spot I do believe in the County of Los Angeles. I would hope this is a message to Southern Pacific Railroad that they should take care of the major crossings of all the streets here in the City of Compton because they are deplorable."
Councilman Robert L. Adams complained that Southern Pacific officials "really have not come to the bargaining table . . . regarding the separation of grades in the city. I'm told that they do not mind grade separation, but they do not have any money (to pay for it). I don't believe any of that."
Adams said he plans to discuss the need for federal assistance with federal Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole. "I'm at a loss understanding why we can't generate enough funds to depress or raise the rails through the city (but) we can make arrangements for the (Nicaraguan) contras to have money that they require."