On a recent morning, small waves lapped at the rocky shore, picnickers gathered at tables around a lagoon, and families perambulated along the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay to enjoy a sunny day in Richmond. The scenic escape at Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline was carved out of an industrial waterfront more than four decades ago to provide a refuge from the press of nearby freeways, refineries, chemical plants and factories.
But a battle between the regional park district and BNSF Railway could soon determine whether the 307-acre space remains a peaceful sanctuary or becomes home to a busy diesel rail line — something many residents adamantly oppose.
“This land should be a park,” said Joe Groom, 71, of Richmond, as he strolled along the unused rails with his dog, Keo. “There’s not very much open space like this in Richmond. The railroad would destroy the ambiance of this place. They’re noisy and they’re dirty, and they don’t really belong in a park.”
The feud over the shoreline’s fate began about six months ago, as the East Bay Regional Park District was wrapping up nearly six years of work on a plan to improve the space — including removing unused railroad tracks. BNSF officials bristled over the decision and sent a pair of letters to the district arguing that the railroad owns the rights to run trains on the right of way, and plans to do so. The fight is now being waged in Contra Costa County court, and park users and public officials have formed a coalition to combat BNSF’s plan to run trains through Miller-Knox Park.
Support for the park district is coming from not only residents and parkgoers but a multigenerational cast of elected leaders.
Retired Rep. George Miller III, whose late father is a half-namesake for the park, said he hopes BNSF will reconsider its “intrusive rail activity.” Along with John T. Knox, son of the other park namesake, he’s joined a campaign to protect the park.
While the city is not an official party in the legal dispute, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt recently announced plans to introduce a resolution at an upcoming City Council meeting that would oppose the railroad’s plans. Councilman Demnlus Johnson III said he plans to support the resolution, because the park serves a community need for those in search of fresh air and open space.
“The park is used by a very diverse set of individuals,” Johnson said “It’s something people — black, brown and white — all use. It’s not just a park for rich people, it’s just not. It’s one of the city’s top amenities, especially for black and brown people who live in polluted communities.”
The railroad and Richmond have long coexisted, but not always peacefully.
BNSF Railway’s predecessor, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, brought Richmond to life in 1900 when it located its western terminus there. The railroad built a large rail yard near what became Point Richmond and a tunnel and tracks to Ferry Point on the shoreline, where passenger trains rolled onto barges to San Francisco and freight trains were taken to other bay ports.
Now the rail company wants to restore the unused tracks that run through the shoreline park to help build and send long trains out of its rail yard. The park district, which acquired the railroad right-of-way through eminent domain in 1991, prefers to rip up the rusty old rails and pave a smooth, wide bayside trail.