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Paso wants Congress to tweak rail policies

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The city of Paso Robles is calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to continue increasing its safety oversight and re-evaluate existing rules.

City Councilmember Fred Strong told New Times that the city sent a letter to Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) in December asking them to support a robust Rail Title in Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act that "puts safety first and encourages a cooperative relationship between railroads and the communities in which they operate."

Strong is a rail subcommittee co-chair for the National League of Cities' transportation policy committee. The league is a resource and advocate for cities within the United States. Strong said that Paso Robles is the only city within San Luis Obispo County that is a member of the organization.

He and the city want the Federal Railroad Administration to re-evaluate the flow of passenger and freight traffic, safety incidents at rail crossings, noise, and how rail transportation of hazardous materials is communicated to the communities it travels through.

"The state rail board knows [what hazardous materials are on freights] but not us, because they're afraid of getting hacked and having some terrorists get ahold of that information and know what train to blow up and when," Strong said.

He understands their fear but said local communities should know when potentially dangerous cargo is passing through. Strong and a few other locals are trained to call a hotline if there is an issue with an item on a freight train.

"They'll tell us the exact contents of that car to us and what we have to do in order to control it. So we want that to be true across the entire United States," he said.

Another issue the letter addresses is the length of freight trains, which continues to grow. Some are almost 3 miles long, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It raises concerns that trains could block traffic more often at road-crossings, impeding emergency responders and prompting unsafe pedestrian behavior.

Lastly, the city endorses a re-evaluation of the Train Horn Rule. The rule, effective in 2005, requires locomotive horns be sounded for at least 15 seconds in advance of all public grade crossings.

Strong said in other places across the country, some freight trains sound their horns all the time, disturbing residents who live nearby.

"There is a clause in there where we would be allowed to have them change those rules so that they'd have to have a very good reason to sound that horn—an imminent danger but not to just disturbing people for the sake of blowing it every time they're going through a crossing no matter what time of day or night," he said.

Brittney Kohler, legislative director of transportation and infrastructure for the National League of Cities, said the organization has a long-standing interest in working with Congress and the country's railroads to improve rail operations.

"Today, more than ever, shared issues of rail safety, efficiency, and service are coming up in conversations at city halls across America and in community conversations with Congress, who handles much of the nation's rail policy," Kohler said. "We believe the transportation reauthorization will be a key opportunity for Congress to catch up on modernizing their rail policies as we've done with so many other conversations while also improving safety and service to America's communities and businesses." Δ

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