Over the Hill

Paso Robles is vulnerable to railroad disasters

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

Our Paso Robles City Council disappointed me last week. I wish they had taken a sterner stand on those trains that may soon carry crude oil through our city and through much of the rest of this county.

The trains will each include about 80 tank cars full of crude oil bound for the Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. To handle that oil, the refinery needs some improvements and 1.3 miles of railroad track. All of that requires a county permit. A SLO County Planning Commission hearing is expected in a few months.

The Paso Robles City Council didn’t oppose the Phillips 66 plans. Instead it voted unanimously to send a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Management and Budget. That letter asks for stricter crude-oil transport rules, improved tank cars, limited speed in cities, better communications with local officials and more.

Several oil trains have derailed in the past two years, some of which burned and exploded. They included some of the newer, supposedly better tank cars. New federal standards to make oil trains safer won’t take effect until 2017.

I think the Paso Robles City Council should also send a letter to county officials. The letter should urge the county to withhold approval of the Phillips 66 permits until the company uses only tank cars that meet those new safety standards.

Paso Robles is vulnerable to railroad disasters. Five city streets have railroad grade crossings. Three are in the downtown area at 10th, 12th and 13th streets. I remember a train hitting a car on 10th Street and killing the driver.

And then there’s the underpass at Riverside Avenue and Pine Street near First Street. It is historic. Harold Franklin told its history in the Pioneer Museum’s Pioneer Pages Volume VII, 2001. The underpass was built in 1886 to allow heavy wagons drawn by teams of horses or mules to cross under the railroad.

It’s a pre-automobile underpass, too narrow to accommodate two automobiles side by side. Only one vehicle can go through at a time. There’s a stop sign on the Pine Street side. The driver on that side has limited visibility and so must stop before entering the underpass. Some cautious people also honk first.

We are told that Phillips 66 wants to send up to five trains per week to the Nipomo Mesa. Each train will include about 80 tank cars loaded with crude oil. They’ll have to pass over that old underpass.

Suppose one day that 129-year-old structure decides it isn’t going to take all that clickety-clacking weight anymore, and just collapses. Then what happens to those 80 tank cars of crude oil? They’d probably derail and scatter with great momentum, and crash and burn.

Or maybe not, but I wouldn’t want to be nearby to find out.