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Near the Rails, on the Edge

Southland residents near train tracks live with noise, dirt and danger -- and wonder why homes are allowed to be built so close.

April 06, 2005|Caitlin Liu and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

When Theresa Marquez heard about the San Bernardino train derailment this week that forced more than 300 people to evacuate their homes, she experienced a dreaded deja vu.

In 1990, as the Pico Rivera woman washed dishes at her kitchen sink, she looked up in horror as a derailed freight train toppled and crushed her backyard garage.

Although she wishes she could afford to move, Marquez says she can't understand why new housing keeps sprouting up in Southern California next to where trains run night and day.

"There are so many problems being by railroad tracks -- the noise, the dust, the trash that flies over ... what can happen when there is a train accident," said Marquez, 49, who was not injured in the crash. "They should have a zone ... a certain amount of distance so trains can't roll over into people's homes."

She is far from alone in her concerns. But officials say there are no easy answers in a crowded region where both transportation and housing needs have to be met.

Constructing homes next to railroad tracks "just sets you up for major community issues," said Wally Baker, senior vice president of Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "It's poor planning."

Houses have been built next to California railways since the first tracks were laid more than 130 years ago. With the advent of automobiles and freeways, city centers moved away from railroads. But housing continued to be planted alongside rail corridors -- even as trains grew longer, heavier, faster and more bothersome to people nearby.

A Times analysis of census data shows that about half a million people in California live within 1,000 feet of active freight railroad tracks, their numbers growing as new rail-adjacent neighborhoods are added. Those figures do not include light-rail commuter tracks such as the Blue Line.

Rail companies say they don't like being next to homes because of the liabilities and community outcry over derailments, car collisions and deaths of children playing on the tracks.

"In California, there are more homes closer to our tracks than any other state in which we operate, and that's because California is so built up," said Kathryn Blackwell, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific. "We get complaints about noise, complaints about whistles. We have gone on record to oppose having housing built so close" to the tracks.

But new housing next to tracks almost always gets approved, Blackwell and others say.

Across the Southland, new rail-adjacent houses are sprouting up in such places as Anaheim, Loma Linda and Palmdale. And in today's hot market, buyers are snapping them up.

"We're all sold out," said Randy Steinberg, a spokesman for John Laing Homes, which is constructing 20 luxury houses -- starting at about $600,000 -- in Anaheim across from railroad tracks on Santa Ana Street near Anaheim Boulevard.

Anaheim is rezoning 40 acres of industrial land -- some of it next to railroad tracks -- to residential use to alleviate a housing shortage. In San Bernardino, residents near Monday's derailment are expected to be allowed back into their homes this morning. The accident caused a leak of a combustible liquid similar to paint thinner, and officials had feared that winds could blow the evaporated chemicals into residences.

Other recent major incidents in the region include an October 2004 derailment near Whittier that threw nearly three dozen cargo containers into backyards and damaged four homes. In June 2003, a runaway train crashed into a Commerce neighborhood, destroying several homes and injuring a dozen people.

The burdens and potential hazards of living next to a railroad have grown over the years.

Since the 1920s, the length of the average freight train has grown from 47 to 69 cars, according to the Assn. of American Railroads. Individual freight cars also have grown. A modern articulated car can carry 10 or more shipping containers and exceed 300 feet in length.

Since 1990, the national total volume of freight transported by rail has jumped by 60%. In the next 20 years, passenger and freight rail traffic through Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties will more than triple, boosted by imports, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

Marquez, who bought her Pico Rivera home two decades ago, said she didn't mind the trains at first. But now, the longer and heavier trains shake her house like small earthquakes. She estimates that rail traffic has tripled since she moved in.

"Just like how there are changes in train traffic, there should be changes in laws" to protect people who live near railroads, Marquez said. The Commerce and Whittier incidents prompted Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina to call on county agencies to -- among other things -- investigate creating buffer zones between tracks and houses.

In a December report, the county's attorneys deemed that a difficult, if not impossible, task because of property rights and potential conflicts with federal safety rules.

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