Safety, service and capacity problems on the Union Pacific Railroad's troubled 36,000-mile system all but locked up vital sectors of Los Angeles' economy Monday, stranding cargo in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, forcing shippers to reroute goods to other harbors and holding up chlorine needed to treat the region's water supply.
The railroad's problems in moving freight also have been blamed for delaying Metrolink commuter train service.
At San Pedro and Long Beach, 16 ships were backed up in the outer harbor Monday like planes stacked up over a fogbound airport. Ships have been diverted to Oakland and San Diego. And cargo containers--filled mostly with Christmas merchandise destined for stores locally and across the United States--are being stacked higher and higher.
The crisis is being blamed on Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad, which has been plagued with safety and service problems since its merger with Southern Pacific Railroad last year. The situation has become so acute that on Friday federal authorities declared a "transportation emergency" from California to Oregon and the Midwest to the Texas Gulf.
The company's troubles, including a shortage of rail cars, couldn't have come at a worse time for the local ports, which are reporting an increase in cargo traffic. The problems have extended beyond the ports.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, worried about delays in receiving railroad shipments of chlorine, last week dispatched, for the first time, a tanker truck to Nevada to pick up the disinfectant.
The agency also sent a letter to federal authorities warning, "We are extremely concerned that these shipping delays could result in Metropolitan and the almost 200 public water systems we serve encountering problems in meeting our obligation to provide an uninterrupted supply of safe drinking water to the public."
"I want to make it clear that the water system is not at risk," said Jay Malinowski, the MWD's chief of operations. He said the agency could bring chlorine to Los Angeles by truck but that it is not as safe as shipping by rail.
Metrolink officials have complained about delays on its Riverside-to-Los Angeles commuter lines. Metrolink leases the track from Union Pacific and says it has an agreement giving it priority, but officials said that in some instances commuters stuck behind slow-moving freight trains have been an hour late to their destination.
Alex Clifford, a Riverside councilman who chairs the Southern California Regional Rail Authority board, which operates Metrolink, met with Union Pacific Railroad Co. President and Chief Operating Officer Jerry Davis on Friday and came away "cautiously optimistic" that things would improve.
But at the Port of Los Angeles, Al Fierstine, director of business development, said things had gotten worse Monday.
Noting that ships are anchored in the outer harbor, he said problems are much more severe than he has seen in his 13 years with the port.
"You can jump up and down and be frustrated if you want, but realistically, until [Union Pacific] puts additional cars and crews on the West Coast, we're still going to have this problem," Fierstine said. He said railroad officials have said they don't expect to resolve the problems until late January.
At Long Beach, ships that usually pull up to the docks immediately and unload their cargo within 24 to 36 hours are now sitting in the harbor for two or three days and then taking another three or four days to unload, said Yvonne Avila, the harbor's director of communications.
"We take pride in having a kind of seamless flow of transportation," she said. "That seamless flow has been completely thrown off track by the Union Pacific.
"If we can't take cargo off of a ship and put it on a train quickly, the only thing we can do is stack that cargo inside the terminal. Once cargo starts stacking up, then it has to be sorted and moved and unstacked in order to eventually get it out of the gate. That takes many more people. Then you run into labor shortages."
Some shippers downplayed the impact of the railroad problems on holiday shopping.
"I think Barbie's going to be there," said Ray Keane, executive vice president of Mitsui OSK Lines. Although there may be some minor delays and extra expenses incurred by shippers, he said, "I don't think children are going to be crying that Santa Claus didn't bring them anything."
Union Pacific's problems have been so bad that federal regulators said the railroad had suffered a "fundamental breakdown" in its rail safety.
Union Pacific executives have conceded that they underestimated the staffing and logistical efforts that the merger of the two rail systems required, in which thousands of freight cars, locomotives and employees were combined into a single network. The railroad also said the federal inspection of its safety "raised some valid issues" that it is addressing with a new service-recovery plan.