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Union Pacific voices major objections to bullet-train plans

The powerful rail firm says the Central Valley route raises serious safety issues, disregards the company's property rights and would disrupt its freight operations.

October 29, 2011|By Ralph Vartabedian and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Union Pacific says risks could arise as bullet trains sail past the company's freight lines. Above, a Union Pacific rail yard in Rialto.
Union Pacific says risks could arise as bullet trains sail past the company's… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

California's bullet train project, already under attack from a giant farming operation in the state, has attracted another powerful critic — Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad.

Union Pacific says the California High Speed Rail Authority's Central Valley route raises serious safety issues, disregards the company's property rights and would disrupt its freight operations.

The company's comments as part of an environmental review assert that the authority, which is building the $43-billion system, has made a "false conclusion" that the bullet train would not affect the freight railroad's operations during construction or later passenger service. Documents and drawings show encroachment onto the railroad's right of way in Fresno and Merced. The comments were provided to the Times by Union Pacific.

The company is widely regarded as a major political player, making $1 million or more in annual political contributions at the federal level alone and spending more than $5 million a year on lobbying. Former Vice President Dick Cheney served on the company's board before the 2000 elections.

Richard Tolmach, co-founder of the California Rail Foundation, called Union Pacific "dangerous" in its influence. The company's objections are coming "after they warned the California High Speed Rail Authority not to make any plans involving their right of way," he said. "Politically, they could be a problem for members of Congress from the Central Valley who support the project."

The rail authority said it has a good relationship with Union Pacific. "We are working to plan the state's high-speed rail system in a way that ensures their future growth potential is preserved and that the safety, security and reliability of their freight operations remain intact," said authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall.

Union Pacific's concerns come only weeks after J.G. Boswell, the nation's largest farm, asserted that the bullet train could destroy processing plants, irrigation canals and a private airport when it cuts through Kings County. Boswell, which has a long history of fiercely defending its property rights, asked for a six-month delay in the environmental review process. Shortly after, the authority announced that it would issue a new environmental report in six months and allow parties to comment again.

The rail authority released two draft environmental impact reports in August and has received an avalanche of comments, many harshly negative, from cities, schools, churches, homeowners and others.

After evaluating those concerns, the authority could dismiss them or make revisions before releasing a final report. Many critics lack the resources for a legal battle against the project. Boswell, by contrast, has explicitly not ruled out legal action if its concerns are not addressed.

Union Pacific and Boswell both raise concerns about the impact of the rail project on their commercial operations, but Union Pacific goes further, outlining safety risks it says could develop as bullet trains sail past the company's freight lines. The railroad said long portions of three potential routes would run adjacent to its freight corridor, in some cases within 100 feet.

"The authority proposed placing no safety barriers of any kind along the high-speed rail right of way where adjacent freight trains are more than 102 feet away," the Union Pacific letter states. "Where freight tracks are closer, [the plan] merely offers that some type of barrier may be required." That decision, the letter said, "appears to be based entirely on the use of random factual assumptions rather than an engineering study or other reliable authority."

Union Pacific does not detail the potential risks of derailments. But rail safety experts said a crash involving either a freight or conventional passenger train near a bullet train, which would travel up to 220 mph, could be serious. The freight railroad also said the bullet train's plans are "incomplete and contradictory," adding that the drawings of the track alignment show "unmistakable encroachments" on Union Pacific property.

"Union Pacific will not surrender or convey any property that could be used to support freight railroad operations," the letter said. Wall, the rail authority spokeswoman, said that the agency is "clear of their property rights" and that the matter will be resolved when the environmental report is made final.

The bullet train's plans would extensively utilize BNSF Railway property. In its comments to the authority, BNSF said it "remains willing to discuss and explore" allowing the bullet train onto its right of way. But until the impact on its freight operations is known, the company said, it is not willing to agree that the plans are acceptable.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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