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Railroad, Critics on Different Routes : Transportation: Two toxic spills have tarnished Southern Pacific's image. But the company says that it has made improvements and that derailments will happen.

July 31, 1991|MICHAEL PARRISH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern Pacific Transportation Co. has kept a low profile as it tries to ride out the storm of criticism after the historic railroad's second serious chemical spill from a derailed train in two weeks.

It has already quietly lifted a temporary, self-imposed ban on transporting the pesticide that killed virtually all life along 45 miles of the Sacramento River in the first spill. When a duplicate of the derailed train failed to leave the tracks in a test, Southern Pacific figured that it could drop the restriction.

The company's one concession to the Dunsmuir crisis is another temporary measure: reducing the tonnage limit of trains running on its Sacramento line.

"We have not made any permanent changes," Southern Pacific Vice Chairman Robert Starzel said Tuesday.

In the wake of the Dunsmuir spill July 14 and another in Seacliff on Sunday, railroad executives point to improvements already undertaken since Southern Pacific was purchased in 1988 by Denver financier Philip Anschutz. And they say--repeatedly--that although they are sorry, derailments will happen.

Yet apologies may not be enough to control the damage to the railroad's image. A joke already making the rounds among irritated government regulators is that the company nickname, SP, has come to stand for "Spill and Pollute." And Southern Pacific's political and industrial critics are losing no time firing broadsides at the train company.

"Southern Pacific is by far the worst offender of all the railroads in California at complying with safety regulations," said James P. Jones, state legislative director for the United Transportation Union. "They haven't maintained their equipment appropriately in the 30 years I've worked for them."

The spills have also lit a fire under some regulators' plans to tighten oversight of the handling of hazardous materials in the state and around the nation.

"Dunsmuir was of such a magnitude, and so serious--but when Seacliff occurred on top of that, it was just beyond my imagination," said Patricia Eckert, president of the California Public Utilities Commission. "And I'm in a situation to do something about it."

By coincidence, the commission, which regulates railroads in the state, was scheduled in its Aug. 7 meeting to consider new rules that would tighten control over rail transport of hazardous materials in California. And after riding a six-mile stretch of track approaching the Seacliff site, Eckert called her office and added an emergency order for a hearing on the spills at the same meeting.

"I believe there's a lot of urgency," Eckert said. "I think that we need to be looking at preventive measures and planning measures. . . . I don't think the dimensions of this are yet exposed."

In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal agency that investigates major transportation accidents, doesn't expect to know the exact cause of either spill for weeks.

But the NTSB had already recommended that the Department of Transportation undertake a detailed analysis of how hazardous materials react in rail accidents. That recommendation followed a train wreck last year in Helena, Mont., in which a chain reaction of chemicals in different cars ended with an explosion that knocked out most of the city's electric power.

Realizing that such an analysis will take years, the NTSB has urged that immediate attention be focused on the worst potential problems.

Ted Lopatkiewicz, an NTSB spokesman, said the agency had recommended that government and industry develop a list of materials so dangerous that they should only be transported in specially protected tank cars. The Department of Transportation is studying the recommendation.

According to Eckert, Southern Pacific and the other railroads operating in California are resisting PUC plans to tighten state regulations.

But not all regulators believe that stronger rules would have prevented the two spills, particularly the Dunsmuir accident.

"Any time you push a 180,000-pound car off a four-story building onto some rocks--unless it's one of the super-cars that transports nuclear materials--you're probably going to have a dent in the thing," said John Stoner, a spokesman for the DOT's Hazardous Materials Transportation office. "That's pretty severe pressure on a tank." Or as Michael C. Brown, spokesman for Southern Pacific says: "Derailments on railroads unfortunately happen every day."

Southern Pacific is financially the weakest of the nation's seven major rail lines. In 1989, the company lost $65 million on railroad operations, although it showed a $97.9-million profit overall. It cut the operating loss to $44 million in 1990, with overall profit of $29.1 million. Southern Pacific has sold more than $1.1 billion in real estate and transit corridors to pay off debt and maintain operations.

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