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Washougal mayor counts 174 trains, calls weeklong watch a success

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter
Published: April 24, 2015, 5:00pm

After a week spent camping amid the heavy diesel fumes and roaring trains at Washougal’s busiest intersection, Mayor Sean Guard was ready to go home.

Guard set out on the afternoon of April 17 to spend a week in his 30-foot camping trailer at the intersection of Main and 32nd streets, where he would count every passing train during all hours of the day. He kept track of speeds, the types of trains, how often they passed and how long they tied up traffic.

All of it, Guard said, was information BNSF has been reluctant to share with the city. The details are of the utmost concern to many residents of Washougal, as the city continues to see an increase in oil train traffic. The trend will only pick up, of course, if the Port of Vancouver becomes home to the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, a plan Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. have had in the works for quite some time.

The task afforded Guard little more than an hour of sleep at a time throughout the week. Volunteers took over as he left the site just a handful of times to quickly run some errands or stop at home to shower.

Packing up camp on a chilly Friday morning, Guard looked back on the trip as a success. He found the information he came to gather and drew lots of attention to several big concerns about trains passing through Washougal.

In all, Guard said, 174 trains passed by his campsite during the week, averaging about 25 trains a day. His tally included 12 coal trains and nine oil trains.

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BSNF, said Washougal sees an average of about 30 to 35 trains a day. Traffic flows peaked in 2006, when about 45 to 50 trains traveled through the city each day, and Melonas warns the rate could spike back up to that mark again this year.

Melonas also noted that trains carrying hazardous material aren’t permitted to drive through the city any faster than 35 mph. The fastest speed Guard recorded all week — using a radar gun — was for a freight train traveling 54 mph.

Guard kept a spreadsheet with all the information he tracked. He declined to record some of the speeds.

In those cases, Guard said, the trains usually either went through before he could grab the radar gun or they came to a standstill next to his campsite.

“Some in the dead of night I didn’t go out to get readings on,” he said.

The longest traffic jam Guard recorded was a few seconds shy of six minutes; he tracked it with a stopwatch. That happened when a coal train slowly took off again after stopping at the intersection.

In all, more than 300 people came to visit Guard throughout the week, he said. The list includes people from all walks of life: elected officials, school administrators, teachers, coaches, longtime residents and newcomers to the city.

“It was very refreshing and inspiring to have so many people stop at the site and say hello, tell me that they appreciated the efforts, talk about train traffic or just talk about the community,” Guard said.

Columbian Small Cities Reporter