Concern over the safety of train tracks on Main Street in Clifton are bringing mixed messages from the company that owns them, just as the Virginia Department of Transportation is sorting out who is responsible for their maintenance.
"The tracks are safe, certainly," said W. K. Woody, assistant division engineer for bridges in the Piedmont Division of Norfolk Southern, the railroad company that uses the tracks every day.
"The storm drains are as safe as far as we know," he said. "The tracks aren't unsafe at all. We inspect them annually and there are no major concerns at this time."
That's quite a change from a letter Woody sent to Clifton Mayor James Chesley, dated March 3, in which Woody told Chesley he "shared the concerns" of Lt. Terrence Jenkins of the Fairfax County Hazardous Materials and Investigative Services, who had suggested the tracks may be in danger of collapse because of cracks in the storm water drains.
"Partial failure of the pipe is already evident, and it appears that complete failure may occur in the near future," Woody had written in the letter.
FOLLOWING A MEETING of the Clifton Town Council on Tuesday, March 7, Chesley met with representatives from VDOT to discuss the state of the storm water drains and the safety of the tracks. VDOT brought out a truck to flush water down the storm water drain on Monday, March 13 and although the drain appeared to work fine, Chesley said his concerns about the tracks have not been reduced.
"I'd like to know what happened to change his mind," he said of Woody's comments. "It was a concern of his and [Jenkins] that got me started on this whole thing."
Woody's reversal is "like telling me the sky is falling, then telling me there's nothing to worry about," Chesley said. "I don't think everything is fine."
In the past few weeks, Chesley said he's been trying to determine who owns the railroad tracks and, as a result, the storm water drains underneath them.
Bob Driscoll, resident administrator for VDOT in Fairfax County, said he is "100 percent certain" Norfolk Southern owns the tracks.
"The train tracks belong to the railroad," he said. "I have spoken with various authorities in the Virginia Department of Public Transportation and have some schematics and I'm quite sure I know who they belong to," Driscoll said.
He is working to get another video camera truck to come and inspect the storm water drains under the tracks in Clifton to determine the extent of the damage.
"The railroad company came out last year and repaved the crossing and I was out there a few weeks ago and water came out of the drain just fine," Driscoll said. "I didn't see any signs of water pooling under the tracks or any evidence that there was damage to the ground under them."
AN AVERAGE of 26 Norfolk Southern trains go over the tracks every day, said Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern. Four of them are passenger trains from Amtrak while 16 are VRE commuter trains. The remaining six trains carry freight.
On any given day, a total of 7,800 passengers travel on those trains, said Mark Roeber, a VRE representative. "About 60 percent of those passengers are on the trains when they go through Clifton," he said, during the train's schedules of 5:30 a.m. until 8:15 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
If a train were to derail in Clifton while carrying freight, the possible environmental and health risks "depend on the types of material being carried," said Jenkins.
For example, Jenkins said, if the train were only carrying the 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel needed to operate the train, there exists a possibility of a fire, which could contaminate the water in Pope's Head Creek near the tracks in addition to any fire damage to nearby structures.
"There could be good-sized fire, but as for health concerns, it shouldn't be too much of a problem," he said.
Still, Jenkins said residents of Clifton shouldn't be too worried.
"The hazard from the railroad has always been there," he said. "There's always been the possibility of a derailment or a car getting stuck on the tracks."
He encourages families to have an escape plan should they have to evacuate, but "that's something everyone in the country should have, given the terrorism level and other concerns," he said.