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Guard stands watch at BNSF Railway line

Washougal mayor begins weeklong camping trip to count passing oil trains

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter
Published: April 17, 2015, 5:00pm
2 Photos
Washougal Mayor Sean Guard pauses at the railroad tracks, near his downtown Washougal campsite.
Washougal Mayor Sean Guard pauses at the railroad tracks, near his downtown Washougal campsite. On Friday, he began a weeklong camping trip next to the intersection of Main and 32nd streets, where he will count all the oil trains rolling through Washougal at all hours of the day. Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL— On a sunny Friday afternoon, Mayor Sean Guard popped open the freezer in his 30-foot camping trailer and whipped out a bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey.

“Have I got this stuff frozen yet?” he said, before opening a cooler packed full of meat. “I’ve got plenty of steaks onboard. We’ve got barbecues down here. We’re ready to go.”

Guard stocked up on all sorts of fixings — a box of cigars, some chilled wine, and of course, plenty of canned chili — for his luxury camping trip next to Main and 32nd streets, just yards away from the BNSF Railway line. And Guard’s going to need all of those goodies to help pass the time as he sits and records all sorts of information about every passing train for the next week.

Last week, Guard announced plans to camp out next to the tracks, counting each and every train that passes from noon on Friday to the same time on Friday, April 24. He also sent out invitations to Gov. Jay Inslee, BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matthew Rose and a number of state legislators to join him for the adventure.

As political theater goes, this may be one for the ages. The scene had already become somewhat of a media circus late Friday afternoon as local TV news vans waited across the street with reporters putting together their segments on the mayor.

But Guard insists his trip 10 blocks away from his home to his camping spot serves an important purpose. During his stay, Guard will keep track of how many trains go by, the type of trains, how fast they’re traveling and how long they tie up traffic at Washougal’s busiest intersection. If he has to step away to run an errand, a volunteer will step in to maintain the effort.

“The point of this is at least for a week’s period of time to get an accurate count,” he said. “They (BNSF) obviously know what their number of trains are and stuff. They just don’t share that information.”

Another part, of course, is using the information to convince BNSF that Washougal needs traffic mitigation at the intersection — an overpass for either the trains or the cars.

To Guard’s pleasure, BNSF responded to his request, but not exactly how he expected. Rose didn’t come; in his place, about 10 other company representatives showed up to meet with the mayor.

The group included members from BNSF’s engineering and hazardous cargo crews, some were local and others came from as far as Seattle. BNSF Spokesman Gus Melonas, who headed up the crew, said the dialogue between Guard and the company reps was informative and civil.

“We welcome the mayor’s discussion,” Melonas said. “We want to be a good neighbor. We have members that live and work in this community, and safety is our No. 1 priority.”

Guard reflected that sentiment, saying the railroad officials just want to be helpful.

The mayor came up with the idea to stay by the tracks after seeing the news about a number of recent high-profile oil train crashes around the country. The issue’s important to Guard, as Washougal continues to experience a rise in oil train traffic, a trend that is sure to pick up even more if Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. build the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the nation at the Port of Vancouver.

“We certainly understand the public’s attention on this important issue,” Melonas said. “But we’re obligated by law to move all types of commodities. We don’t control what we haul. We control how we haul it.”

Washougal’s rail line dates to 1908. And Guard points out that he’s camping about three blocks away from the site where a train derailed in 1979, spilling grain and lumber all over the side of the tracks.

Currently, about 30 to 35 trains travel through the city each day, and traffic volume was highest in 2006, when anywhere from 45 to 50 trains ran by every day, Melonas said.

“We expect that we could be back at the ’06 record volumes sometime this year,” he said. “Volumes fluctuate based on customer demand.”

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The company has invested $500 million into track upgrades throughout the state in the past three years, Melonas said. That includes upgrades in Washougal.

Incidentally, Guard’s trip began the same day the DOT mandated new 40 mph speed limits on trains carrying hazardous materials through urban areas. That doesn’t really matter for Clark County, though, Melonas said.

“We don’t operate over 35 through this zone anyway,” he said. “From Washougal into Vancouver out to Ridgefield, we do not operate over 35 mph.”

Guard will put that to the test this week, tracking the speed of each train with a radar gun. So far, pointing the gun at an oncoming train hasn’t encouraged anyone to slow down, he said.

“They sped up this morning when they had TV crews doing interviews right next to the tracks,” Guard said.

Columbian Small Cities Reporter