Once or twice a week, a mile-long train loaded with freight containers chugs out of the Port of Long Beach on its way to markets in the Midwest.
The train represents the latest in technology: containers loaded directly onto double-stack rail cars at the docks instead of having to be trucked five miles to an inland transfer center.
Eliminating the single step in the process of sending goods from producer to consumer saves an estimated $59 to $90 on each container. With 200 or more containers per train, the savings multiply.
The economics are so compelling, in fact, that the single container terminal that offers dockside rail service is again asking the Long Beach Harbor Commission for permission to build a $1.6-million expansion of its rail yard.
Seven Trains a Week
The expansion would allow International Transportation Service Inc. to send out up to seven trains a week, instead of the current one or two.
The Long Beach Harbor Commission, which has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 1 on the application, finds itself in a quandary. Port officials have said that dockside rail service would eliminate hundreds of truck movements a week from the Long Beach Freeway and keep the port competitive with other West Coast harbors.
But it poses several problems. First, the trains would rattle rail-side homes in Long Beach and Southeast Los Angeles County that now get little rail traffic.
Further, if the ITS application is approved, three or four other of the port's six container terminal operators are also expected to apply. Eventual approval of their projects could jam the wharves with rail cars without an estimated $50 million to construct railroad bridges and make other improvements, said Harbor Commission President David L. Hauser.
Funds to Mute Noise
And that is just half the problem. The other half is coming up with the port's $47.5-million contribution for a possible long-term solution to train noise. The money would be the port's share for a $220-million project to divert train traffic to a central rail corridor along Alameda Street through Carson, Compton and other cities.
"That is a substantial amount of money. One scratches one's head and wonders where it is coming from," Hauser said.
Port officials had hoped the money might come from a $30-per-container fee levied on every dockside container. But the Long Beach port is leery of imposing any fee that might put it at a competitive disadvantage with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles port has no on-dock loading to trains and no formal proposal to start it. However, Lee Zitko, a spokesman for the Los Angeles harbor, said that dockside loading is "under discussion."
In the meantime, the commission has approved $175,000 for a comprehensive study due in March on the feasibility of dockside rail. Hauser said he is exploring whether ITS might be willing to put its application on hold while port officials try to resolve some of the lingering questions.
Most of those questions are not new. Port officials wrestled with the issue of dockside rail several years ago, but decided instead to join the Port of Los Angeles in supporting the notion of a central inland terminal--now the Intermodel Container Transfer Facility near Carson.
ITS applied once before to enlarge its rail operations, but withdrew the application in November, 1986. The latest ITS application, however, has forced a reexamination of the issue.
800 Truck Round Trips
Besides saving shippers' money, the ITS expansion alone would eliminate at least 800 round trips a week by trucks hauling containers on the Long Beach Freeway to the transfer facility. The result would be cleaner air and less traffic congestion, the draft environmental report on the project states.
ITS President Shinta Asami said that more dockside rail loading would allow a more efficient transfer of containers from ships to rail cars. With the connection of land and rail so critical, "we need to transfer cargo smoothly," Asami said.
Fewer trucks, however, means more trains moving through the backyards of about 15,800 people living within 500 feet of Union Pacific's branch rail line from East Los Angeles to Long Beach.
Trains Run in Morning
The environmental report predicts "a high degree of disturbance to some rail corridor residents" because the trains would run in the early morning hours.
Two Long Beach city councilmen say they are concerned about the increased noise, vibration and dust that would be faced by those residents.
"We've got people trying to sleep less than 50 feet from the line," said Long Beach City Councilman Warren Harwood, who represents the city's northern-most district.
June Layne, a former aircraft plant worker, can look out on the tracks from her Raymond Avenue home. "The noise becomes unbearable sometimes. It's nerve wracking," Layne said.
Noise Levels Exceeded
The environmental report says noise from a passing freight train at 50 feet exceeds the maximum decibel level allowed in the city's residental areas.
If ITS wants on-dock rail and Union Pacific wants to run more long trains, Harwood suggests that the port levy a fee on each container loaded on-dock to build grade separations at four major intersections, as well as sound walls.
Long Beach City Councilman Ray Grabinski, whose district also includes the Union Pacific branch line, said he, too, believes residents deserve a break.
"We're not going to allow the impact to be increased two or four or five times without some compensation for these folks," he said.
Noise Suppression Costly
The environmental report pegs costs of installing sound walls, which would "have a significant potential to reduce noise impacts," at $40 million for protection of all residential areas along the 18.5-mile Union Pacific line. The report also states that noise can be minimized by running the trains during the daytime when people are not as likely to be jarred out of their sleep.
"As a practical matter, however, container terminal and intermodal railroad operations are driven by ship arrivals and the ability to turn a ship around as quickly as possible," the report states. "Each day's ship delay can cost upward of $50,000 per day."
As if to underscore the point, the report states that ITS plans to have trains arrive in its yards at 5 a.m. and leave at 4 a.m. the next day.
Rail Line Proposed
While the Long Beach City Council has not taken a position on dockside rail, it has endorsed the plan to reroute trains from the port to a proposed consolidated rail line through Wilmington which would use Southern Pacific track. The plan, however will not happen soon, if at all.
The Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG) has been trying to coordinate the project as a route that would disturb the fewest number of people, compared to Union Pacific's tracks through Long Beach or Santa Fe Railroad's route through the South Bay.
About 7,900 people--many of them buffered from noise by adjoining warehouses--live within 500 feet of the proposed 16.9-mile consolidated route. That is about half as many as Union Pacific's line and a third of the number who live within earshot of Santa Fe's route.
Stalled by Funding Dispute
But so far, the project has been mired by funding disputes between the federal, state and county governments, eight cities and ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Long Beach and its port are backing the project, but cities like South Gate and Vernon balk, said Gill Hicks, principal planner for SCAG.
The environmental report estimates that it will take at least three years to arrange financing and two years for construction. The period in which "the community may experience some adverse impacts" was nonetheless described as a "short time" by port Executive Director Jim McJunkin in a memorandum last month to a city councilman.
Southern Pacific Reluctant
Southern Pacific has been open to negotiation although so far it is reluctant to permit its tracks to Los Angeles Harbor to become a corridor for competitors. The railroad is also staunchly opposed to on-dock rail, which would siphon business from its $62-million intermodal container center. John Tierney, an assistant vice president for Southern Pacific, said that both ports examined, then rejected the notion of on-dock rail service several years ago and instead favored development of an inland intermodel terminal.
"We put up the money and put up the bonds," Tierney said. "We feel we went in there in good faith."