Three weeks after a derailed Union Pacific freight train smashed the calm of their neighborhood near Whittier, residents met with railroad and government officials Saturday to express their concerns about the accident, its aftermath and their safety.
On Oct. 16, 11 cars and four locomotives streamed off the track and pitched cargo containers, debris and packages into their backyards. Two dozen families were evacuated, though most were able to return soon after.
According to longtime residents, the neighborhood, which is hemmed in by railroad tracks, the 605 Freeway and the San Gabriel River, had experienced a train crash years before.
On Saturday, about 45 people, including U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), Whittier City School Supt. Carmella Franco and representatives from Union Pacific crowded into an auditorium at Mill Elementary School, just a few miles from the crash site.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who called the meeting, told residents that she, Napolitano and other elected officials sent letters to Union Pacific and the National Transportation Safety Board last week calling on the railroad to increase safety in the area and conduct more sophisticated tests of the rail lines.
Union Pacific officials said the tracks near the homes are regularly inspected using a variety of tests -- some of which were conducted just two days before last month’s derailment. But the cause of the derailment -- a defect in a joint bar, which bolts two sections of track together -- could not have been detected by existing technology, they said.
Many residents expressed distrust of the railroad’s routine maintenance record. They questioned whether inspections had been conducted at all and demanded that the railroad release its maintenance records for the six months before the crash. “This has been a problem there for a long time,” said resident Gilbert Fierro. “They are constantly tightening up those bolts.”
Fierro said that he had heard a “stomping noise” coming from the rails in the days before the crash. “This is not something that just occurred on that particular day,” he added.
Railroad officials promised to look into those assertions.
Other residents expressed concern about their safety living so close to a rail line. They demanded that the railroad build a wall between the track and the homes and that train speed limits be reduced in residential areas. The train was traveling at 57 mph when the accident occurred, just under the corridor’s 60 mph speed limit.
Angel Fregoso asked whether Union Pacific would be willing to purchase the homes along the rail line. “We will be living there with a lot of fear,” he said. “Only God can answer us if this will or won’t happen [again]. My life, and my family’s life, are worth more than my house.”
Railroad officials said they were dealing with each resident’s claim on an individual basis and were trying to resolve those claims as quickly as possible. The property most severely damaged by the crash will be donated by Union Pacific to Los Angeles County for a park. Railroad officials said residents of that home said they did not want to return to the area.
But the railroad’s promise of a quick resolution brought an angry outcry from many residents at the meeting. Some said that they had submitted claims weeks ago, for food lost because of power outages after the crash, and had yet to receive compensation. Others said they had more complicated concerns about whether their property had been irrevocably devalued by the crash.
“It is a month later,” Molina told the railroad officials. “These people should not be waiting to resolve these issues.”
At her urging, railroad officials promised to return to the school today prepared to issue checks for some claims and to fast-track the resolution of others.