To Tree or not to Tree

The Statesman ran a story today about the removal of some trees on Capital Metro property near the railroad tracks. Good story.

The most important thing to remember here is that we’re talking about safety and federal regulations. Imagine if you were in your car approaching a major intersection and your view of a traffic light or stop sign is blocked by a tree. The consequences could be deadly. A train operator has to have a clear view of signals too.

We’re required to clear any obstructions in these circumstances:

Line of sight to crossing signals: Train operators must have a clear view of all crossing signals and gates up to 20-seconds prior to reaching a crossing so the train has time to stop if the signals are malfunctioning. Drivers on the road must also have a clear view of all signals, signs and gates.

Line of sight to train signals: These are the signals that train operators look out for so they know whether they must stop or keep moving. Operators must have a clear view of all signals. Most signals on Capital Metro’s line are placed within 12 to 16 feet from the center of the track and are about 12 feet tall. In areas with straight track, the line of sight could be as long as a half-mile from the signal itself.

Operating envelope clearance: There cannot be any obstructions within the operating envelope of a train. The size of the operating envelope varies depending on the curve of the track. The industry standard is 10-feet from the center of the track on each side and 22-feet high.

Failure to remove obstructions could result in a serious safety situation as well as violations from the Federal Railroad Administration.

MetroRail staff will continue to work closely with the landscape contractor to make sure that crews only remove what’s absolutely necessary to comply with the federal regs. And as the story mentioned, we’ll work with neighborhood groups to try to let them know in advance if there’s going to be any major trimming happening nearby.

5 thoughts on “To Tree or not to Tree

  1. martin

    Adam,
    My neighbor, Kenneth, featured in the article, nor any of the other neighbor upset by the ‘chop job’ done by Cap Metro contractors are not against safety nor are we so daft to misunderstand that safety is important in the operation of rail, so please do not patronize us with your explanation of the importance of safety. Really, who more than those residents living right along the rail line (and the Cap Metro riders) are more concerned with safety? I do not think that any nearby resident wishes to reduce the safe operation of trains on this line.
    I and others do not see safety versus protection of our urban tree canopy as an “either, or” situation, and if you do view the situation in this way I believe you are wrong. In fact, I believe we can have a high-quality rail-based rapid transit system and a great urban tree canopy. I think Cap Metro and this commuter rail will do great things for the community and will be a great environmentally friend aspect of our community. I also, as you do as well, value the protection of mature trees throughout our community.
    If you read the article closely, no one is calling for all trees to be left in place no matter what. Again, we are not beyond understanding that some trees may need to be removed for safety. But, I do have several questions/issues for you to think about. Why do these trees, which are more than a decade old, only now pose a safety threat? There has been daily operation of freight on this line for the entirety of these trees’ lives and Cap Metro has never seen fit to cut them. Secondly, I have seen this area and from what I have seen the only line of sight that was cleared was from the trains to neighbor’s bedroom windows. No notice was given that this extensive tree removal would be undertaken, and if you view the article video you will see a haphazard job of tree removal where seemingly same-sized trees, standing right next to each other were treated differently. I doubt the contractors were following a detailed removal plan. Lastly, if Kenneth, your neighbor on the tracks, were to wish to cut a similarly sized tree on his property he would have to get permission for that from the City because of the tree ordinance. Mind you, if he could show a legitimate reason why he wanted to cut it- for instance safety- he could do so and he would be told proper mitigation and removal techniques to use when he removed it. Why can Capital Metro not follow the same mitigation and removal techniques that all other Austinites are required to follow? It would not keep you from removing trees that encumber safety, but it would require you to do it in a proper manner. Did you view the video along with the article online? Lopping a mature tree off 4 feet from the ground is not a proper way to remove a tree regardless of the reason you are removing it.
    So thank you for your input on this story and on this issue, but please do not try to boil it down to one simple answer- safety. While safety is undoubtedly important, we should not view this as an “either safety or trees” issue. So, “to tree or not to tree,” is, in fact, not the question. But the question is if we must cut a tree, how do we do it, do it properly and do it in a sensitive way that maintains the value that tree provides to the community through mitigation.

  2. Adam Shaivitz

    Martin, thanks for your feedback. I think continuing the dialogue on this issue will ultimately be beneficial for everyone involved.

  3. chrysrobyn

    Adam–
    This is another instance when the CapMetro blog can be either a place for Astroturfing (as I currently see it), or an opportunity to actually improve communication with the community.

    “Continuing the dialog” does not mean “We now have a procedure in place for tying pink ribbons around every branch and trunk to be cut and placing a pink flier on the front door of every house affected explaining what the ribbons mean”. Just think about the minimal difference in effort. One guy can hammer out the ribbons in what, 2 hours? Fliers on doors in 30 minutes? Granted, branches too high to reach with a ribbon but reachable with a chainsaw might present a problem, but there’s got to be something easy. I assume CapMetro holds that maintaining these trees is actually the responsibility of the home owners and performing the work themselves is actually a courtesy, so marking trees like this and giving the owner an opportunity to call an arborist and actually get it done right would probably be a good thing for everyone.

    So, are we talking “lip service” or is there an actual procedure here to address the community’s concerns?

  4. Adam Shaivitz

    CR- You’re correct. There is not a specific procedure in place, hence the need for continuing the discussions. What we have done, however, is make the commitment that our rail staff will notify our community involvement team in advance of any major trimming. Then our CI team can work with neighborhood groups in the area. It’s my understanding that our Customer Service Advisory Committee has been or will be talking about this matter as well. Staff also has been in contact with the city’s arborist for input on these situations. All of these discussions hopefully will lead to a better process.

    To your other point about the trimming actually being the responsibility of homeowners: to my knowledge all of the vegetation originated within in the railroad right of way. The crews were not removing trees that belonged to homeowners. But that’s a good point. If a tree that does belong to a homeowner grew and eventually obstructed the rail line then that would be a different situation.

    Martin asked an excellent question that I didn’t get a chance to address earlier about why after years and years of freight service on the tracks Capital Metro is just now deciding that vegetation is a safety problem. Much has changed along the line with MetroRail service starting soon. The enhanced CTC signal system means we’ve added new signals in places where there were no signals before. Also, MetroRail trains travel faster than freight trains. So the line of sight to crossings is greater in distance. I can’t speak for the Federal Railroad Administration, but I would assume that with the new rail service coming, they’re doing more thorough inspections of our line which may result in having to remove obstructions that weren’t previously identified. I realize this doesn’t ease concerns about how the trees were removed in this particular situation. But I hope the information is helpful.

    I really do think there’s value in these discussions.

  5. martin

    Adam,
    Thank you for your followup and continued interest in this issue. I think you are right in that all of the vegetation cut was in the ROW/Cap Metro property rather than on others’ property.
    I’m looking forward to a safely operated commuter rail in a corridor with a verdant urban tree canopy- I think this is one instance that we can have our cake and eat it too!

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