Is This Any Way to Run A Railroad?

Union Pacific's tenacious fight to gut safety laws passed when a derailment sterilized 40 miles of the upper Sacramento River

The railroads and their allies in the trucking and chemical industries put up a herculean lobbying effort against the bill.

"I remember meeting with 100 lobbyists in the hallway and being impressed with how many men were there, as opposed to women. They were there working out the deals. The compromises and the language," Thompson aide Pat Leary recalls. "It wasn't quite an auction house, but there was a lot of shouting going on."

Even so, the Thompson bill passed relatively intact. The railroads, it said, would be subject to minimal state safety oversight at the handful of sites the Public Utilities Commission deemed extremely dangerous.

As Thompson and Leary battled in the Statehouse, Jim Pedri, head of the Redding office of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, contemplated ways to keep chemicals out of California's most important source of water: the Sacramento River. Although Southern Pacific, in Pedri's estimation, was one of the most arrogant, intransigent companies around, shortly after the 1991 accident, SP President Mike Mohan announced that the company would replace the curved span that led to the 1991 disaster with a new bridge.

"We cannot offer assurances that there will never be a derailment at that location," Mohan said, "but if it were to occur again, we'll catch it before it goes into the river."

Meanwhile, the state Department of Fish and Game drafted a plan to return the river to its former pristine state, permitting only catch-and-release fishing on sections of the river to allow the native trout to regenerate.

As if by miracle, that fall moss and algae began to return to their homes on the polished granite boulders at the river's bottom. Flies once again skipped over the ripples. The water's surface occasionally squirmed with the flourish of a native trout's tail. Some had predicted it would take 50 years for the river to come back to life, yet it had begun to resurrect within months.

Out of tragedy, it seemed, good things had come.
"It was like the spirits lifting, and you said to yourself, 'Oh, look, there's life there,' " McCloud says. "It was going to be OK."

For the railroad, however, the fight over the Cantara Loop had barely begun. First, there was the embarrassing situation in Dunsmuir.

For months Dunsmuir residents were regularly quoted in the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and in Southern Pacific's hometown San Francisco Examiner expressing outrage at the railroad's spill.

Almost by accident, Southern Pacific came upon an ingenious vehicle for muting those voices: the river recovery plan proposed by the Department of Fish and Game. As the state unveiled its intention to limit fishing on most of the upper Sacramento River to catch-and-release, some Dunsmuir merchants balked: They needed tourists to keep their businesses afloat, even if that meant dumping hatchery fish in the river and turning it into another commercial fishery. The state's fisheries biologists said most of the hatchery fish would starve in the lifeless river, and the few survivors would drive out native fish. But Southern Pacific joined the voices of the merchants.

Dunsmuir divided into strident and bitter camps. For many residents, the SP executives from San Francisco ceased to be the enemy; now it was the Fish and Game bureaucrats from Sacramento.

Back at the Cantara Loop, a year passed, then four years, but Southern Pacific had yet to build a bridge. The design SP engineers came up with -- a cistern-lined freeway-style bridge pierced by culverts -- was poorly engineered, some environmentalist critics said. Instead of addressing these problems, Southern Pacific allowed its controversial bridge design to slowly wallow in the state permit process.

Then, last June, Union Pacific, which had bought Southern Pacific in 1996, announced it would abandon SP President Mike Mohan's pledge to build a containing bridge at the Cantara Loop.

"We never felt that there was an absolute promise," UP spokesman Mike Furtney explains now. "If you look at Mike's comments, he said, 'We would explore the possibilities for the design of a bridge.' "

Only last month did the railroad accede, under pressure from the state, to build a device aimed at catching cars that fall off the track -- a 2-foot-wide suspended pipe, resembling a giant handrail. The rail is a far cry from the bridge Southern Pacific promised it would build, but certainly an improvement, state water quality expert Pedri says.

The railroad agreed to install the pipe only on the condition that the government paperwork related to the device not specify that Union Pacific was required to do it.

"They don't want to set a precedent," Pedri explains.

After seven years spent battling California's efforts to prevent another Cantara Loop spill, the railroad is now engaged in what may prove to be its most important fight. The effects of the spill -- both environmental and otherwise -- have largely dissipated. But Sen. Thompson's safety rules remain. So the railroads have retained the powerful Washington law firm Latham, Watkins to attempt to block Thompson's safety rules from taking effect.

California regulators anticipated such a fight, designing the rules to comply with the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against undue restriction of interstate commerce. In this vein, California used Union Pacific Railroad's internal safety rules as a template for the state regulations. Even these rules would only be enforceable at dangerous stretches of track such as the Cantara Loop. To further sugarcoat the medicine, the laws allowed railroads to change the rules after consulting with the state.

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