There were four trains that passed through Manteca Tuesday between 1 and 2 p.m.
I know this because for the last 13 years I’ve lived roughly a block from the tracks.
Why this matters is simple. Sometime in the coming months, someone will make their way to a Manteca City Council meeting and complain bitterly about the train noise. They will also make a fuss about traffic that is snarled by train movements at the nine crossings on the Fresno line heading south toward Ripon and less so about the five crossing on the line that heads over the Altamont Pass via the Oakland line.
The council — not wishing to sound rude or heartless — will listen. And if enough people speak, comeback to a subsequent meeting or squawk relentlessly over Facebook council will direct staff to look into it.
Staff, which obviously doesn’t have plenty of time on its hands given the snail pace a lot of projects move at, will be directed to look into it. This inevitably leads to a rehash of previous efforts that included spending a couple of grand on a railroad crossing expert to tell elected leaders what their predecessors have been told repeatedly.
Trains are required by federal law to sound their horns approaching crossings. There are solutions such as quiet crossings but they will cost the city at least $100,000 apiece and to be most effective would require doing all nine crossings.
But there are two serious asterisks. One is the implementation of quiet crossings basically holds the railroad harmless from any carnage that may occur from people paying chicken by going around additional safe guards or them being strung out of their minds on whatever medication, legal or otherwise, they take. That puts the potential liability for-all-practical purposes on the city’s back. The other is federal law would still allow engineers to sound horns if they feel the need to do so.
After living the early part of my life in Roseville where Union Pacific has a major marshaling yard and knowing more than a few train engineers, rare is the engineer who at some point in his career hasn’t watched hopelessly as he has furiously tried to apply the brakes to stop thousands of tons hurling down tracks at 60 mph from slamming into a stalled vehicle, someone thinking they can make it or a person that is hell-bent on committing suicide.
You don’t forget things like that. As such it’s doubtful that many engineers at the control of trains moving at a solid clip through a heavily populated area with nine railroad crossings in close proximity to each other will be able to not sound a horn.
Thanks to the last study commissioned by the city we know that to replicate a trench like the one on Reno were train traffic flows below ground level would cost at least $1.2 billion. That’s before accounting for the fact Manteca has sandier soil and much higher water tables than Reno that is 4,500 feet.
It is clear for a city that can’t find the money to keep all streets in good repair, can’t build a decent police station, say they can’t afford to hire more than just the minimal police officers, or put in place recreational and cultural amenities one would expect in a city closing in on 100,000 residents won’t be able to come up with $1.2 billion because someone bought a home near the tracks and now has buyer’s remorse.
Of course the city could build a couple of overpasses/underpasses and/or close down some railroad crossings. But that would create other problems such as ripping up existing neighborhoods and even part of downtown to squeeze in bridges or tunnels. If four are built that could easily cost more than $150 million.
Closing crossings would shift more traffic to remaining crossings and create even more colossal backups.
The issue of trains won’t be going away anytime soon. Train traffic projections made in 2017 indicated between freight and passenger anticipate the 20 trains that pass through Manteca on the Fresno line in a 24-hour period to triple to 30 by 2040. Union Pacific expects the Oakland line — that impacts the Louise Avenue, Yosemite Avenue, and McKinley Avenue crossings — to see train movements go from 32 today to 75. The increase includes ACE trains going from 8 to 10 a day.
While the city can do little if anything about train noise that will increase from both horns and movement down the tracks, they could push for a solution that would ease traffic congestion.
It could take place in two ways. A push to have Union Pacific double track its Fresno line from the Lathrop Wye to a point shy of the Stanislaus River bridge or else relocate the Calla siding farther to the south toward Ripon.
The siding was put in place long before Manteca development breached the 120 Bypass.
As recent as 20 years ago only a handful of vehicles would be backed up by trains on the siding blocking the Woodward Avenue crossing. As for the Industrial Park crossing which ties into Spreckels Avenue it didn’t exist. The crossing it replaced — Spreckels Road — was rarely used.
Today increased train traffic, growth in southeast Manteca, and the Industrial Park Drive extension that took pressure off the Main Street corridor has made multiple daily traffic snafus at Industrial-Spreckels at Moffat as well as to a lesser degree Woodward Avenue the norm.
It is not uncommon for trains sidelined waiting for rail traffic approaching and eventually pass to block the crossings in excess of 15 minutes at a time.
As train traffic increases so will the frequency of sidelined trains blocking the crossings.
Worse yet, there are already cases where pedestrians, primarily teens walking to and from Manteca High, will either walk around stopped trains or — worse yet — clear the couplings between boxcars, flat beds, and tankers.
Impatient motorists will flip U-turns and head for the Main Street crossing that is a mile away. That won’t work for pedestrians.
If elected leaders are so inclined to do something that reduces Manteca residents being at the mercy of train traffic the clear priority would be to address issues at the Industrial Park Drive-Spreckels Avenue crossing given traffic volume, truck movements and the high number of pedestrians and bicyclists becayse it is the only track crossing of the Tidewater/city bike path system.
Working with the railroad and appropriate federal agencies to eliminate the siding crossing Woodward as well as Industrial Park Drive-Spreckels Avenue by moving it farther south is one solution that would lead to significant improvements for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike.
If that can’t take place then there needs to be a full court pressure on Union Pacific to partner with the city to put in place either a pedestrian/bicyclist bridge or tunnel at the Industrial Park Drive-Spreckels Avenue crossing.
The train noise doesn’t bother me or a lot of other people who have come to live with it as background sounds they hardly notice.
The traffic backups are a minor inconvenience. Given I use the Industrial Park-Spreckels crossing frequently based on where I live I have learned to adjust my movements accordingly. The potential fixes that range from the low millions for train noise to $1.2 billion plus for a train trench aren’t worth the investment and even less so when weighed against other municipal needs.
But the issue of pedestrian safety is another matter.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at email@example.com