LONG BEACH — Once or twice a week, a mile-long train loaded with freight containers chugs out of the Port of Long Beach on its way to markets in the Midwest.
The train represents the latest in technology: containers loaded directly onto double-stack rail cars at the docks instead of having to be trucked five miles to an inland transfer center.
Eliminating the single step in the process of sending goods from producer to consumer saves an estimated $59 to $90 on each container. With 200 or more containers per train, the savings multiply.
The economics are so compelling, in fact, that the single container terminal that offers dockside rail service is again asking the Long Beach Harbor Commission for permission to build a $1.6-million expansion of its rail yard.
Seven Trains a Week
The expansion would allow International Transportation Service Inc. to send out up to seven trains a week, instead of the current one or two.
The Long Beach Harbor Commission, which has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 1 on the application, finds itself in a quandary. Port officials have said that dockside rail service would eliminate hundreds of truck movements a week from the Long Beach Freeway and keep the port competitive with other West Coast harbors.
But it poses several problems. First, the trains would rattle rail-side homes in Long Beach and Southeast Los Angeles County that now get little rail traffic.
Further, if the ITS application is approved, three or four other of the port's six container terminal operators are also expected to apply. Eventual approval of their projects could jam the wharves with rail cars without an estimated $50 million to construct railroad bridges and make other improvements, said Harbor Commission President David L. Hauser.
Funds to Mute Noise
And that is just half the problem. The other half is coming up with the port's $47.5-million contribution for a possible long-term solution to train noise. The money would be the port's share for a $220-million project to divert train traffic to a central rail corridor along Alameda Street through Carson, Compton and other cities.
"That is a substantial amount of money. One scratches one's head and wonders where it is coming from," Hauser said.
Port officials had hoped the money might come from a $30-per-container fee levied on every dockside container. But the Long Beach port is leery of imposing any fee that might put it at a competitive disadvantage with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles port has no on-dock loading to trains and no formal proposal to start it. However, Lee Zitko, a spokesman for the Los Angeles harbor, said that dockside loading is "under discussion."
In the meantime, the commission has approved $175,000 for a comprehensive study due in March on the feasibility of dockside rail. Hauser said he is exploring whether ITS might be willing to put its application on hold while port officials try to resolve some of the lingering questions.
Most of those questions are not new. Port officials wrestled with the issue of dockside rail several years ago, but decided instead to join the Port of Los Angeles in supporting the notion of a central inland terminal--now the Intermodel Container Transfer Facility near Carson.
ITS applied once before to enlarge its rail operations, but withdrew the application in November, 1986. The latest ITS application, however, has forced a reexamination of the issue.
800 Truck Round Trips
Besides saving shippers' money, the ITS expansion alone would eliminate at least 800 round trips a week by trucks hauling containers on the Long Beach Freeway to the transfer facility. The result would be cleaner air and less traffic congestion, the draft environmental report on the project states.
ITS President Shinta Asami said that more dockside rail loading would allow a more efficient transfer of containers from ships to rail cars. With the connection of land and rail so critical, "we need to transfer cargo smoothly," Asami said.
Fewer trucks, however, means more trains moving through the backyards of about 15,800 people living within 500 feet of Union Pacific's branch rail line from East Los Angeles to Long Beach.
Trains Run in Morning
The environmental report predicts "a high degree of disturbance to some rail corridor residents" because the trains would run in the early morning hours.
Two Long Beach city councilmen say they are concerned about the increased noise, vibration and dust that would be faced by those residents.
"We've got people trying to sleep less than 50 feet from the line," said Long Beach City Councilman Warren Harwood, who represents the city's northern-most district.
June Layne, a former aircraft plant worker, can look out on the tracks from her Raymond Avenue home. "The noise becomes unbearable sometimes. It's nerve wracking," Layne said.
Noise Levels Exceeded