KCBS reporter Jeffrey Shaub and producer Giancarlo Rulli investigate the Bay Area’s aging railway bridges that will carry increasing loads of highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota in this three-part KCBS Cover Story Special.
MARTINEZ (KCBS) — Questions are being raised about the safety of the century-old Alhambra railroad trestle in Martinez. Some local residents and officials are concerned because the bridge is carrying an increasing number of loads of a highly volatile cargo.
As the train rumbles its way across the 115-year-old Alhambra trestle in Martinez, loud creaks and rattles can be heard. And unlike more modern bridges, dozens of its bolts and bridge supports are rusted.
“The railroad told us, actually, that the rust strengthens it,” City Councilman Mark Ross told KCBS, but he isn’t buying it.
He said that residents are worried about its safety, especially because it carries up to mile-long tanker trains loaded with highly volatile—and controversial—Bakken crude oil from shale fields in North Dakota.
“It really begs for inspection and a full report to the community as to its status,” Ross said.
Paul King, the Deputy Director of Rail Safety for the California Public Utilities Commission, agrees.
King said the Bay Area will soon see a dramatic increase in Bakken crude shipments over the Alhambra trestle.
“Somebody needs to be looking, overseeing it, and somebody needs to be doing it for the state of California.
A CPUC report identified railroad bridges as a significant rail safety risk, including many that are over 100 years old—structures like the one in Martinez.
That report and concerns about the Alhambra have the federal government also worried.
“We can’t wait because they will eventually collapse, fall apart—damage will be done,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) said.
He cites the derailment of a Bakken crude oil train in Quebec, Canada, which wiped out half the town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people in July 2013.
That blaze burned for 36 hours.
“It’s a ticking time bomb—it’s just a matter of time,” Martinez resident (and member of the Martinez Environmental Group) Bill Nichols, who lives near the trestle, said.
But Lena Kent, a spokeswoman from the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway said that concerns about the Alhambra are perceptions and not reality.
“At BNSF, safety is our first priority in everything that we do,” she said.
In Part II, we’ll look at how the state, federal cannot even obtain safety data about the Alhambra and other bridges carry Bakken fuel because—in part because there are so few inspectors.