The trains are coming | OPINION

The trains are coming! The trains are coming!

Marysville’s issue with increasing rail traffic is here to stay in spite of all the ink that’s been spilled over BNSF’s high-handed intention to slice Marysville in half with a chain saw of coal cars. From a local perspective it just isn’t fair but from the BNSF perspective, our perspective doesn’t count for much. BNSF has the law on its side.

Bucking the Burlington Northern is akin to Marysville citizens’ fight with Walmart over its decision to plop a new store at the intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 528. Though opponents delivered wonderfully well-reasoned arguments against it, Wallmart’s lawyers, having honed their strategy in thousands of other places, smashed the opposition as Chinese tanks did in Tiananmen Square.

The railroads’ advantage began during the westward expansion in the 19th Century. To encourage completion of transcontinental routes, rail moguls were given rights and privileges that trumped private landowners whenever push came to shove. That level of control has been affirmed whenever Congress is faced with re-drafting definitions of railroads’ rights. Railroad law derived its clout from the reality that rails can’t be expected to  snake around private properties to preserve private interests. Hence, railroaders don’t need to negotiate. The latest tweaking of Federal Railroad Law effective January 1, 2010, says in effect, that when a conflict arises over new rail routes, “ ... compensation shall be determined ... in the manner provided for the taking of real property under the law of eminent domain.” Though this doesn’t address the Marysville issue, it shows that rails hold all the aces.

So we’re stuck with it. Waiting is the hardest part. Bells ring out, red lights flash, crossing arms come down and the wait begins. It’s when one learns all over again that wasted minutes become longer when one has to be somewhere on time. If it takes three seconds for one coal-car to clear a crossing and a train is 110 cars long, that’s 5.5 minutes per train. Tack on a minute on either end to get traffic sorted out and rolling again and you have      7.5-minute blockages. Minimum. I’ve sometimes been left feeling like William Wilson of Huntsville, Ala., who gave the world an earful after being trapped for an hour and ten minutes at a crossing.

Ohio’s legislature weighed in with this statement: “The general assembly finds that the improper obstruction of railroad grade crossings by trains is a direct threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state inasmuch as improper obstructions create uniquely different local safety problems by preventing the timely movement of ambulances, the vehicles of law enforcement officers and firefighters, and official and unofficial vehicles transporting health care officials and professionals.” Surely, Washington has a similar statement on the books.

The Ohio statement describes how Marysville will be profoundly affected when the current annoyance of occasional trains blocking crossings ramps up to a crippling nuisance. When the number of trains more than doubles, it will mean frequent gridlock  at the 4th Street crossing, the 4th and State intersection and the intersection of State Avenue and Cemetery Road—that’s 88th to newcomers.

The situation isn’t unique to Marysville. Reno’s grade-crossings saw rail traffic rise from 15 to 25 trains per day within a year with the possibility of a peak of 40 per day. The city dug a $235 million rail trench below street level, assisted by $35 million from the Union Pacific. Both cities suffer from increased traffic headed to and from seaports. Reasons for upsurges in rail traffic include increasing volumes of raw and manufactured materials, concentration of traffic to fewer main lines and escalating of costs of fuel forcing loads from trucks onto higher efficiency rails.

Though we can’t stem the flow of trains, municipalities are given a token bit of latitude in controlling train-noise by declaring quiet zones. No tooting allowed, just earth-shaking rumble. Trackside residents attest that after a short and sleepless period of adjustment, train-rumble seldom interrupts slumber though, where trains are muted into stealth-mode, road-kill of various species should be expected, including homo sapiens.

The only law effectively protecting towns against blockage of crossings addresses trains that are parked on crossings. If the wheels aren’t turning, limits may be set. But if even a snail’s pace of motion can be detected, a train can take its own sweet time while frustrated motorists stack up on both sides. This right was confirmed under the 1994 Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act and tested by Sioux Falls in 2005. The Sioux Falls action was deemed worthless and tossed out of court. Sioux Falls contended that it wasn’t effective enough that federal law says, “. . the crossing is to be cleared with reasonable dispatch.”

The bottom line is, little can be done to halt, moderate or otherwise ease the burden caused by increased rail traffic. Some advocate re-routing the tracks to the west, which would be purely voluntary on the part of BNSF so that won’t happen. But hey, we’ll still get to use our crossings when they’re not clogged with trains.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.



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