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Railroad boom hits environmental, 'not in my backyard' snags

As US railroads try to meet demand and reduce reliance on trucks, landowners and environmentalists worry about pollution.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2006


From his ostrich ranch, Rooster Cogburn looks out over a broad mesa covered with cactuses, pecan groves, and alfalfa. In the distance, the granite summit of Picacho Peak towers over the Sonoran desert.

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"It's beautiful. It's tranquil. No one lives out there," he says.

But, the view could be changing.

Across the interstate from his ranch, the Union Pacific (UP) railroad wants to build a six-mile switching yard, part of an effort to improve its national freight service. And, this month, local officials rezoned some 10,000 acres from development sensitive to heavy industrial. They envision businesses springing up around the new yard.

Burgeoning business is pushing railroads into the middle of sticky environmental disputes. On one side are environmental groups, ranchers, and landowners concerned about potential chemical spills and air pollution. On the other side are rail companies stretched to the limit – barely able to provide communities with goods. Their strategy – with national implications for reducing oil usage – is to carry more of the containers now moved by long haul truckers. But, to do this they need to build more rail yards in places such as Picacho.

Urban areas are also becoming wary about freight traffic moving through their communities. Nine major US cities are considering legislation that would require railroads to reroute hazardous chemicals – a move that would probably require building more trackage in suburban and rural areas. Last week, both the US Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security introduced legislation regarding shipping hazardous materials. And rail security experts anticipate that the Democratic-led Congress will look more closely at the issue.

With large open spaces in shorter supply and business booming, railroads are locked into disputes over land use – even in what used to be the wide-open West.

The strategy of rail companies – with implications for reducing oil usage – is to carry more of the containers moved by long haul truckers. But, to do this they need to build more rail yards.

"We are all an advocate of increased rail transportation in this country because in part it keeps a significant number of trucks off the interstate highway system," says Cecil Steward, dean emeritus at the University of Nebraska College of Architecture in Lincoln and an expert on sustainability. "However, that does not give the railroads carte blanche to screw up the environment in a similar way the highway system screws it up."

The scrutiny comes at a time when railroads across the nation are building new rail yards – with local citizens concerned about pollution and additional truck traffic. That's the case in Gardner, Kan., where Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway is planning a $1 billion train terminal and warehouse center, in Los Angeles where there are proposals by BNSF and UP to build new yards, and in suburban Atlanta where recently local residents unsuccessfully fought the development of a 450-acre Norfolk Southern rail yard.

The growth of the yards is actually part of a change taking place in the rail industry. It is displacing the long-haul truck industry in moving containers. "We move the long haul, then a trucking company does the short haul," says Pat Hiatte, a spokesman for BNSF in Ft. Worth, Texas.