What started as a tense meeting between Union Pacific employees and Kelly South San Community members evolved into a two-hour discussion on how the two can learn to coexist without animosity.
The two groups met July 19 at the South San Community Center as part of the Kelly/South San Pueblo Community Project.
Currently, the community project planning team is working on a master plan for redeveloping the area. The boundaries are U.S. 90 to the north; Frio City Road, Centennial and Zarzamora to the east; Southwest Military Highway to the south; and Port San Antonio to the west. Carol Haywood with the city of San Antonio Planning Department led the meeting.
Originally part of a regularly scheduled brainstorming session on transportation in the area, it began with angry questions from residents about an accident involving two trains on July 22 at the South San Antonio Railyard.
Robert Alvarado with a group called the Committee for Environmental Justice and Action jumped right into the debate telling the five Union Pacific employees in attendance that, "there was a derailment on Saturday and no one knew anything about it."
He continued, asking if the company has an evacuation plan.
"These minor accidents can be hazardous, too," Alvarado said.
Paul Person, Union Pacific manager of environmental operations for the San Antonio service unit, said the city was in charge of evacuations and pointed to the reverse 911 system where residents in emergency situations are called via ZIP codes. Plus, that particular accident involved another train company. No one was injured and the company was not trying to hide anything, said Joe Arbona, Union Pacific spokesman.
San Antonio Union Pacific employees Joe Garcia, manager of industry and public projects; Luis Molina, manager of special construction projects; and Mike Gilliam, who works in track maintenance, joined Person and Arbona at the meeting.
Jill Johnston, with the Southwest Worker's Union, said the problem is the community doesn't know anything that's happening.
"We would like to establish more public, community forums," Johnston said. "We want to improve the relationships."
Arbona pointed out that an increase in demand for trains has left the company's resources stretched thin. He said representatives try to get to as many public meetings as possible, but given that they have a business to run, it isn't always an easy task.
"We're seeing a demand for rail we haven't seen in 60 years," Arbona said.
Other concerns included beautification and long waits at crossings.
The company is working on several new track improvements and construction, Arbona and Garcia said. And adding two-way main lines in certain areas will improve those wait times for residents because trains will be able to travel two ways without stopping for others.
"The last thing we want is trains to idle," Arbona said. "We are trying to make it as fluid as possible."
As for rerouting tracks around the city, Arbona said plans are being examined but nothing is definite.
He said that building track isn't like building a road. The company "doesn't get taxpayer dollars to build new tracks," Arbona said.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, no future plans were in place. For the South San Community, the demands still were the same — an emergency evacuation plan and alarm system, no dangerous chemicals transported through the area, and the long-term goal of rerouting trains around the city.
As for the Union Pacific employees, Person, who had traveled 375 miles across the state just to attend the meeting, wanted people to know "we're not the bad guys."