BNSF: Coal trains through Acme to stop — for now

Officials from BNSF Railway had a “good news, no news” message Wednesday, Oct. 1, for South Fork Valley residents concerned about train traffic.

The good news: The empty coal trains that have been rumbling through Acme for the past several weeks, delaying emergency responders, rattling windows and depriving people of sleep, should be gone by mid-month.

But Courtney Wallace and Gus Melonas, public relations officials from BNSF’s Seattle office, had little to say to the crowd assembled at Acme Presbyterian Church about the future of coal-train traffic in their valley.

What residents did learn was that it would be easier to run coal trains through their community, loaded or empty, than they had thought.

“We could run loaded coal trains on this route. We have no plans to do so,” Melonas told the 100 or so who attended the meeting, organized by Acme resident Kathie Maxey.

Jeff Margolis, owner of Everybody’s Store in Van Zandt and co-founder of Safeguard the South Fork, an organization created to keep coal trains off the east-county line, said he had thought the wetlands throughout the valley couldn’t support the heavy, loaded trains.

Not so, Melonas said, although the line would need “significant upgrades,” including new ties, track resurfacing and heavier rails.

“It could be done, but we’re spending on the (Bellingham) waterfront,” Melonas said. “That’s the plan.”

On that waterfront line that goes through Bellingham, BNSF plans to add a second track in 2015 alongside the existing rails from Ferndale to Custer. The railroad is in early stages of planning for another second track, between Bellingham and Ferndale.

BNSF is secretive about its construction plans, often to the frustration of affected residents. The public started to suspect some work was planned south of Ferndale because BNSF left behind a possible clue — it was storing railroad switches near the tracks off Rural Avenue. BNSF apparently was talking only to residents of Marietta who would be directly affected by the second track, including one Rural Avenue resident whose property BNSF staked off in preparation for removing her driveway.

Someone at Wednesday’s meeting said he would like to see copies of BNSF’s plans for growth on the rails in Acme, the so-called Sumas Line.

“We don’t put that out to the public,” Melonas said. “We’re not trying to hide anything. Proprietary information — we don’t just put it out.”

He would respond to individual inquiries about near-term plans, he said, at Gus.Melonas@bnsf.com.

The empty coal trains were moved to the Sumas Line over the summer because the waterfront line was being upgraded. Melonas said that the maintenance equipment would be out of the way, and all coal trains to and from Canada would be back on the waterfront by Oct. 15, or 15 days later than initially announced.

Still, Acme residents took the opportunity at Wednesday’s meeting to air their complaints about the increased train traffic.

Acme Fire Chief Elvin Kalsbeek said emergency responders have been delayed multiple times on the same call because the slowly moving trains block one road, then another, then another on the responder’s route. It took the fire chief’s daughter, herself a first responder, 35 minutes to get to a car crash, Kalsbeek said.

“That’s not acceptable,” he said.

BNSF officials said they would report this problem at the Seattle operations office, to see if it couldn’t be corrected before the coal trains stop going through Acme. Melonas and Wallace also promised to review how engineers are using their horns at crossings. Acme residents said some engineers were overzealous with the warning sounds, causing community members to lose sleep.

“You should be able to get your sleep at night,” Wallace said. “We’ll definitely bring that back to the team.”

In recent decades, residents could practically set their watch by the two trains that came through Acme, six days a week. The old, familiar background noise that many valley residents said they liked — it was the sound of men working, one said — will return in two weeks.

“Two trains a day for 20 years, that’s what we’re used to around here,” said Maxey, a 21-year Acme resident.

How much longer that will last, no one can say — not even the railroad company.