Polar Express safety concerns: Investigators discover 72 defects


SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Some loved the Polar Express, a holiday train launched in Santa Cruz last year.

"It was very festive and it was really fun hearing the train come by,” said Capitola resident Brooke Johnson, who lives right next to the tracks. “It's been a long time since we've had a train going by on the tracks, so it was nice to hear it."

Others never wanted to see it take off.

"Please stop any forward direction for the ridiculous rail revival. We don't need this intrusion in our lives," Capitola resident Johanna Bowen wrote to the city council last year.

In August 2016, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission got a proposal from Iowa Pacific Holdings to operate the train, taking people from the Santa Cruz boardwalk to see Santa at the North Pole, just outside of Capitola.

The plan also required a section of the track be brought up to safety standards.

But according to information released via a Freedom of Information Act request filed by KION, five days after the Polar Express first blew it's horn. Federal inspectors said the tracks were still unsafe.

Residents filed multiple complaints with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the train stopped running.

But Iowa Pacific said it completed the needed repairs.

In an e-mail to KION, Kevin Busathk, Iowa Pacific’s vice president of strategic planning, wrote, "Through an oversight the railway failed to give the FRA the required notice, which meant the track was not officially certified as Class I and led to the consequent cancellation of a number of Christmas trains.  The notice to the FRA was belatedly provided November 30, and Christmas trains resumed operation on December 10."

But there were more than just paperwork problems. Federal inspectors discovered 72 track defects between Aptos and Capitola, from overgrown vegetation to loose and broken joint bars.

"If the joint bar breaks, then you have the potential for derailment," said Allan Zarembski, rail safety expert at the University of Delaware. “It doesn't guarantee there will be a derailment, you know, particularly because it's very slow speed operation.”

Still, the FRA said there are no records of Iowa Pacific's repairs, and they are fining the company for 26 violations.

And several Santa Cruz County supervisors also wrote a letter to the company saying, "we have genuine concerns about your due diligence on the safety of the line and your willingness to run a passenger operation on a line that doesn't meet the federal minimum requirements for safety."

Iowa Pacific said its keeps records of repairs. KION repeatedly requested copies but has not received a response.

FRA representatives said all defects are considered serious, but in general it serves as a warning for noncompliance.

When it comes to the repairs performed during the 10-day suspension, the company said addressing those defects was not a prerequisite for Polar Express to resume service, but to improve passenger ride quality

Iowa Pacific said after winter storms damaged the tracks, it will be problematic for the train to run this year. 

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