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March 27, 2023

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Washougal mayor to watch trains roll by

By , Columbian Small Cities Reporter

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard is heading out for a weeklong camping trip next Friday, but not for the sights and sounds of nature or the peace and quiet.

No, quite the contrary: Guard’s going to soak up as much noise, traffic and diesel fumes as he can, kicking back about 10 yards away from Washougal’s busiest intersection, where trains roar by at all times of the day.

Starting at noon on April 17, Guard plans to stay in his 30-foot camping trailer at the intersection of Main and 32nd streets for seven days straight counting every single train traveling through the city on the BNSF Railway line. In those 168 hours at the makeshift campsite in a private gravel lot, Guard says he’ll keep a tally of the type of freight carried on every train and how long each one blocks traffic.

Tallying the trains is important, Guard said. Washougal continues to witness a rise in freight train traffic, and the rate will skyrocket if the Port of Vancouver becomes home to the country’s largest rail terminal for crude oil, as proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos.

Guard may not be alone at his campsite. He announced his plans Tuesday, inviting Gov. Jay Inslee, BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matthew Rose and a number of state legislators to join him.

“The only thing that’s not going to happen in that week is probably a whole lot of sleep,” Guard said. “I’m going to be dozing. So, I hope people come by, because I’m going to need to be kept awake.”

Guard’s already received a bunch of kudos from city leaders around the state, and even some RSVPs, including one from state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas. In an email, Pike told Guard she hopes to join him that weekend — right before the legislative session ends.

“I am thinking that I’d like to camp out for 24 of those hours, in my own separate tent, of course, IF we are not voting on the house floor that weekend,” she said.

BNSF’s figures showing how many trains go through Washougal each day are outdated, Guard said, and he’s not sure if anyone has accurate figures.

“They’re allowed to give us information that isn’t necessarily a snapshot now of what’s actually happening,” he said. “And you can’t get answers from anybody. It’s not necessarily in their best interest to answer if they don’t have to.”

When a train crosses 32nd Street on a typical weekday during the afternoon commute, traffic backs up on the street just about all the way to state Highway 14. The situation highlights the city’s need for a second railroad overpass, Guard said.

“What matters to me is how long (each train) shuts this down,” he said, pointing to the intersection. “I’ve sat at that intersection right there at the stop sign, first in line, for 17 minutes waiting to get across those tracks.”

Guard made sure to point out that his campsite will be just a few blocks away from the spot where several freight cars derailed in 1979, spilling grain and lumber all over the side of the tracks. Throughout the city, a number of schools, churches, homes and businesses fall within a half-mile radius of the tracks, making the prospect of an oil train accident that much scarier, he said.

BNSF said it’ll slow the trains down to 35 mph while travelling through cities with at least 100,000 people. Washougal has a population of roughly 15,000.

“But Burlington Northern’s telling Camas and Washougal that you guys don’t matter,” Guard said. “We’ll still do 45 to 55 (mph) through here.”

Guard acknowledges there’s little-to-nothing the city can do to stop more trains from traveling through Washougal. But Guard said he hopes BNSF will find several takeaways from what he gathers: the trains need to slow down, outdated railcars need replacements, and BNSF needs to either get help to Washougal faster in the case of an accident or keep trains carrying volatile contents out of the city.

Columbian Small Cities Reporter