About 300 Montebello residents took full advantage Saturday of a chance to tell state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer why they believe one of the nation's busiest railways is eroding their lifestyle and threatening their safety.
For nearly two hours Lockyer listened to their accounts of blocked traffic, fouled air and even property damage.
One long train can block the city's four main north-south thoroughfares at once and hold up fire and police response time, Police Chief Garry Couso-Vasquez said at the community forum. Locomotive engines have been left unattended and idling for up to 20 hours, spewing diesel fumes into her home, one woman said. And Victor Romero said the near-constant rumble of freight trains has cracked the wall of his house.
"I live two houses and one brick wall away from a rail yard, and the diesel fumes are affecting our health," Romero said. "I'm afraid to let my daughter outside. There has got to be a solution."
Although Lockyer could not deliver what the city believes is the best solution -- a $150-million cross-town trenching project that would put the trains below ground level -- he did offer some legal advice. He said residents and city officials should consider filing private nuisance lawsuits against Union Pacific Railroad over some railway dangers and interferences. Also, the city should investigate whether the railway is breaking any environmental or air quality laws through locomotive emissions, he said.
"We will work with you," Lockyer said, adding that he was impressed by the concern of local elected officials and residents.
Montebello Mayor Norma Lopez-Reid said Lockyer was invited to the forum in an effort to gain a powerful ally.
Since a derailment in neighboring Commerce last June, when a runaway train crashed into a several homes, Montebello city officials have made rail safety a priority issue in this suburb of 65,000, Lopez-Reid said. They formed a coalition to voice their concerns, and complained Saturday that Union Pacific has not been attentive.
No officials from the railroad were invited, but in a telephone interview John Bromley, director of public affairs for Union Pacific, said the company is aware of many of the complaints in Montebello and is "continually trying to improve rail safety" and respond.
"We don't want to fight with residents, and we try to be good neighbors," he said.
The forum crowd fell silent when Carmen Vasquez told how her two homes were destroyed in the Commerce derailment. Her family has sued Union Pacific, charging negligence. The railroad stopped paying for their living expenses in September, and they have since stayed at a hotel, she said. Her three grown children, who lived in the houses, have been staying with relatives.
Bromley said that he could not discuss the Vasquez case because of the litigation but that the railway had negotiated settlements with other victims.
The rail issues in Montebello stem from geography. One set of tracks bisects about a three-quarter-mile section of the city and lead into among the busiest rail-switching sites in the nation, the East Los Angeles yard, Bromley said. About 40 freight trains a day pass through Montebello, many slowing down or stopping for clearance as they approach the yard, several miles away. It is not uncommon for a mile-long train to span the entire width of that portion of the city, both sides agree.
Couso-Vasquez said police cars were often delayed, but he could not quantify by how much or say whether any injuries or deaths had resulted.
"It does impact us on a daily basis," he said. "Patrol cars can't get through the north-south ends of the city."
Bromley said it is Union Pacific's policy to block intersections for at most 10 to 15 minutes. But often, for safety reasons, trains must stop or slow as they enter the yard.
"We try to avoid blockages, but sometimes we can't for operational reasons," he said. He added that train operators will often break up long trains and uncouple the cars to avoid blocking intersections.
Several residents complained that locomotives are commonly left unattended with engines running for hours. Madeline Clarke, who said she lives 20 feet from the tracks, complained of an engine she said idled 20 hours. She and others said that the unattended engines not only posed a safety hazard but that the fumes often sickened them.
"One day there were six engines running with no one in them behind my house," Clarke said.
Bromley said that federal laws require the railway to give conductors a break and that engines are left running while the crews are swapped. He also said it is difficult to restart a locomotive and it is not uncommon for engines to be idle "for a significant amount of time," especially if train traffic is backed up.
City Manager Richard Torres said it was possible that by 2020, rail traffic could be passing through Montebello 40 to 50 minutes at a time if the Alameda Corridor was extended as planned.
That has prompted the city to call for trenching the railway, although they said a project of that magnitude was unlikely because state budgets cuts had deeply affected transportation projects.
Short of trenching, Montebello officials said they want the railroad to monitor air quality, stop blocking intersections for prolonged periods and be more responsive to their concerns.
"Unfortunately, we feel that our complaints are falling on deaf ears," Lopez-Reid said.
Although many of the railway issues come under the authority of the federal government, Lockyer advised Montebello residents to contact the California Department of Transportation and the state Public Utilities Commission with their complaints. He said filing nuisance claims against the railway every time a lengthy blockage occurred could be one way to gain its attention because "the railroad hates sending someone to small claims court every day."
But Bromley said such actions "are not a positive way of addressing the problem."