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March 17, 2010 > Railroading legacy paves way to a safer Fremont

Railroading legacy paves way to a safer Fremont

By Alyson Whitaker
Photos By Alyson Whitaker

Genetic traits like eye color, dimples, and hairline are commonly passed and tracked through generations. BART Board Member Tom Blalock no doubt possesses certain physical characteristics of his ancestors. But he also inherited a love of railroading, passed down through five generations.

Tom's great-great grandfather, David Matthew came to this country from New South Wales as a young boy. As he entered adulthood, he became ensconced into the railroad, both as an inventor and a conductor. He was responsible for designing the "cab" over the engineer, as well as the "cow catcher - two features of railroad cars still in use today. He was involved in the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting the east and west coasts and opening up the country for trade and shipping routes. In 1887, David published a book titled "Pioneer Locomotives" - a collection of his drawings. Tattered and worn, Tom has one of the three original printings of the book.

Tom's grandfather, William Chase was a conductor on the Key System railway running up and down the east shore of the San Francisco Bay. The railway system was in operation from 1903 until 1960, when the system was sold to a newly formed public agency - AC Transit. The Key System's original territory is served today by BART and AC Transit bus service.

While some of his ancestors had professional experience with the railroad industry, others had a more indirect connection. His whole life, Tom believed that his father had traveled west in a covered wagon. After his father passed away, Tom was talking with his uncle Leland and the topic came up. Leland started laughing at the tale and hooted out, "Covered wagon? Hell, no son... he rode a choo-choo!"

Tom absorbed the stories of his ancestor's experiences with the railroad and later on, took those stories with him in his career. He graduated from San Jose State University with a Bachelor's degree in Construction Engineering and went to work for the city of Mountain View as an Engineer in Training. It was there he had his first exposure to the devastation caused by trains colliding with automobiles and began his quest of making railroad crossings safer for the public - for both pedestrians and automobiles.

When Tom came to work for the City of Fremont in 1960, he found an enormous city, sliced and diced by railroad tracks. Both Western Pacific and Southern Pacific had tracks through the 100 square-mile city, with a large number of unsafe, at-grade railroad crossings. Tom saw the potential for traffic circulation improvements and increased public safety, but realized that each crossing had to be upgraded separately, and at significant cost.

During Tom's 35 year tenure with the City of Fremont as Director of Public Works, several at-grade crossings were made safer by separating the railroad tracks from the roadway, also known as "grade separations." Two of those crossings - one at Auto Mall, and another at Grimmer Boulevard - have since paved the way for the BART extension into Warm Springs, eliminating the need for major improvements at these crossings. Just as the railroad helped to conquer the West, many local grade separation projects in Fremont helped to open up the city.

Now serving on the BART Board of Directors, (District #Six, serving Fremont, South Hayward, Newark, and Union City), Tom continues to be actively involved in the community and the quest for increased availability of public transportation options to residents throughout the Bay Area. He was involved in the extension of BART to the San Francisco Airport, and has also been a key proponent of the extension from Fremont into Warm Springs - the first five miles of the 21-mile extension into San Jose and Santa Clara. On the Board for 16 years, Tom plans to run for one more term in hopes of being there when the doors open at the Warm Springs station.

Though he may be retired from full-time employment, he's not lacking in ways to spend his days. In addition to serving on the BART Board, he serves on the boards of almost all heavy rail systems in the Bay Area.

Through it all, Tom often reflects back on his roots. Whether he inherited the love of railroading from his ancestors or not, it's clear that the early introduction to railroading planted the seeds that helped guide his career priorities, making Fremont streets safer for its residents.

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