Trains idling in Escalon for longer than 10 minutes are getting noticed...and reported.
On the heels of the city filing a lawsuit, challenging environmental documents filed by Caltrans in connection with the proposed double tracking of rail lines through the city, residents are being asked to be aware of how long current trains are sitting and idling.
Part of the PUC - Public Utilities Commission - Code prohibits trains from stopping for 10 minutes or longer if they are blocking a crossing.
"If the train is moving slow, say it's a mile-and-a-half long train moving at a quarter-mile per hour, it's not breaking any law," said Escalon Police Chief Doug Dunford.
Residents turning out for a special meeting on the double tracking issue on Oct. 17 said they were concerned that trains were deliberately slowing and stopping for lengthy periods of time, blocking train crossings in town. And, they said, they feared more of the same since the town filed suit against Caltrans to stop the project.
"I don't really see that happening," Dunford said. "What the city is doing is at a higher level and when I worked at the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway) there were a lot of things happening higher up that train engineers didn't know about."
Instead, Dunford said, community residents may be more aware of the trains slowing and, in some cases, stopping for periods of time. The city, however, is keeping an eye on the issue.
"What we're asking for is that if the train is stopped for an inordinate amount of time, get the lead engine number, call the police department and we will contact the BNSF about that," Dunford said.
City officials said filing the lawsuit against Caltrans was designed to serve as a "bookmark" in the issue, with negotiations on mitigation measures still occurring between the city and the Department of Transportation while the lawsuit is pending.
Issues ranging from nighttime quiet zones to pedestrian safety crossings are at issue, along with the environmental impacts. And though Caltrans had indicated the double tracks will not bring an increase in train traffic, city officials and local residents say they're not convinced.
Resident Francine Ray-Bolls testified about being stopped in traffic by a train blocking the crossing at Highway 120 near the Escalon Mini Mart for a 45-minute period.
"There were people driving over the landscaping, making dangerous U-turns," she told the council at the special session. "We were just completely trapped, the town came to a screeching halt and that cannot happen."
Mayor Gary Haskin said he agreed with the perception that the trains were idling longer, even though he admitted he couldn't confirm that.
Rev. Brian Wiele of Escalon Covenant Church also said he felt that train engineers were being insensitive regarding noise.
"They lay on the horn as they come through, I don't think they care," he said.
Randy Schmidt said he has watched for years as the trains block crossings, including one on First Street near Escalon Lumber and Hardware.
"We see it all the time," he said. "It's trains that stop here and block the entire town."
Outgoing councilman Phil Marty suggested that perhaps there could be some 'breakdowns' of various equipment on the tracks in town that would hamper rail traffic but Haskin said he preferred the city pursue "the legal method" of action.
"I think it's important that other communities in the county get involved, it impacts a lot of people," added Dave Cox. "You guys need some support. I think they've (Caltrans) attacked a little city on purpose and are going to bully it through."
Haskin said he is not specifically against the double tracks but he, and other city officials, are hoping the lawsuit will bring about a solution to the problem, with the city receiving acceptable mitigation measures in exchange for the double track.
"We're all more sensitive to it," Assistant City Manager Greg Greeson said of the train traffic and trains stopping in the community. "When it does happen, we're hearing about it."
June 29, 2003 an Amtrak train collided with a passenger vehicle that went through the crossing guard on Highway 120. I saved the newspaper but Terry must have thrown it away. I'll have to go to the Oakdale office and get another.
Holiday traffic, trains tie up city
Except for a lengthy traffic tie up Friday due to a train blocking the tracks on Highway 120, the long holiday weekend passed peacefully for Escalon and the surrounding area.
There was just one fatality in San Joaquin County, a 15-year-old boy died of head injuries after being ejected from an ATV he was driving on private property along Highway 4 between Stockton and Holt.
"It was fairly quiet and uneventful," said Escalon Police Chief Doug Dunford of the holiday.
California Highway Patrol Officer Diane O'Brien of the Stockton office echoed the sentiments.
"We were good in this area," she said.
Statewide, there was an increase in arrests for driving under the influence, up to 1515 in 2003 from the 1400 in 2002.
"You never know," O'Brien said of why the statistics jumped, noting that she wasn't sure if officers had better luck stopping drivers who had been drinking of if there were more people actually drinking and driving.
"The enforcement is the same every year," added O'Brien. "We beef up the patrols."
In the Valley Division that includes the Stockton and Sacramento areas, DUI arrests were measured at 175 this year, up from 170 in 2002.
Statewide, there were 18 fatalities over the holiday this year, the same as last year, said O'Brien.
The CHP's 'Maximum Enforcement Period' started at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 26 and ended on Sunday, Nov. 30 at midnight, with more officers on the highways.
While the holiday passed quietly for Escalon, Farmington and the surrounding areas - with only a few minor auto accidents reported - officials said the train traffic was heavy.
According to Dunford, a bridge that was damaged by fire in Madera resulted in residual slowing and stalling of train traffic through the area, with one train blocking traffic in Escalon for 45 minutes.
"We've already been in contact with Burlington-Northern Santa Fe about that and they are being cooperative," said Dunford, noting that city officials had earlier asked residents to notify police if trains were stopped for an inordinate amount of time.
"The engineer and the conductor were written up," Dunford added.
Also, the local police department is keeping closer tabs on traffic along Escalon-Bellota Road near Escalon High School, with the speed limit there recently reduced.
As of Dec. 1, a 'grace period' for motorists to get used to the reduced speed expired, and officers are now authorized to issue speeding tickets for those who are above the posted 30 mph speed.
"Before the McHenry (improvement) project, the speed limit was 30 mph and it is in the Escalon Municipal Code, that's what the speed limit should be," Dunford explained, noting that the limit was inadvertently raised to 40 mph and posted that way once the improvement work was completed.
The chief said that complaints of speeders in the area, adjacent to the high school, had increased to the point that he and City Engineer Doug Stidham looked into the issue. That's when they discovered the speed limit was raised by Caltrans once the McHenry Avenue improvement project was completed.
But, officials pointed out, that stretch of Escalon-Bellota fronts not only the school, but also the Community Center, the Heritage House senior housing complex and Escalon Covenant Church, all of which are high traffic areas.
The lower speed should help increase the safety factor along the road and the area affected is from Yosemite Avenue to Libby.
Yosemite is the east-west avenue that fronts the high school, Libby Drive is the northernmost street within the city limits, off Escalon-Bellota.
"Our concern is that 40 mph is just too fast," Dunford said.
Drivers have had some time to adjust to the change. The 10 mph reduction in the speed limit along the stretch of highway was posted Nov. 1 with the month-long grace period expiring on Dec. 1.
"We've had very good cooperation on that," Dunford said of the lower speeds. "Drivers are being pretty well-behaved over there, it has been a very positive thing."