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State says local farm can’t use Skagit County railroad crossing
Nov. 4, 2008
OLYMPIA, Wash. – State regulators today rejected an administrative judge’s decision to allow a farm adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks in Mount Vernon to use the Hickox Road railroad crossing during harvest season.
A Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) judge last June granted a petition by BNSF to close the crossing to the public after the state Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to extend a siding near the location. The crossing must be maintained for use by emergency vehicles and for flood control. However, the judge allowed Western Valley Farms to use the crossing during harvest season.
The commission disagreed, concluding that BNSF could not guarantee the safety of farm employees or vehicles using the crossing. “The entire purpose of closing the crossing is to protect the public, including the farm operators, their drivers and their other employees, and railroad employees, passengers and shippers, from unnecessary risk of death, injury and destruction of property at the crossing. … The uncontroverted testimony of the safety experts is that the existing safety devices at the Hickox Road crossing are inadequate to provide that protection, and that even upgrades costing several hundred thousand dollars would not afford complete protection,” the commission said in its written order.
BNSF and DOT proposed to extend an existing railroad siding – a second track where trains pull off the main line and wait for another train to pass – to facilitate a high-speed rail corridor between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., that will allow trains to travel at speeds of over 100 miles per hour.
Freight trains typically pause on the siding at Hickox Road for periods of five to 10 minutes, allowing passenger trains to pass. At times, the trains can remain parked and block the crossing for several hours. A train parked on the extended siding would create a visual barrier such that a vehicle or pedestrian crossing the tracks could not see a train approaching. Such a situation is “exceptionally hazardous,” the commission said.
Currently, four Amtrak passenger trains and about a dozen freight trains pass through Mount Vernon each day.
The commission received about 200 public comments about the case, all but one opposing closure of the crossing. Parties to the case have 10 calendar days to ask the commission to reconsider its decision or appeal the ruling to superior court.
The UTC is the state agency responsible for railroad safety, including approving new grade crossings and closing or altering existing rail crossings. The agency investigates train accidents, teaches public education classes and approves rail-safety improvement projects in Washington. The UTC inspects all of the roughly 2,700 public railroad crossings in Washington every 36 months.
There are also nearly 3,000 private crossings not under the UTC’s jurisdiction.
Editor’s note: A copy of the final order is available at the UTC’s Web site: www.utc.wa.gov/070696.