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Stopped trains block roadways, emergency responders in Centertown

by Ryan Pivoney | December 7, 2022 at 4:03 a.m.
In this June 20, 2016 file photo, a Union Pacific freight train passes through the crossing at Militia Drive in eastern Cole County.

Adam Brown was bleeding from a non life-threatening medical emergency in mid-October and called emergency responders for help getting to the nearest hospital.

But a five-mile-long Union Pacific train was blocking four railroad crossings in and around Centertown, forcing Cole County EMS into Moniteau County to loop around the train. Cole County EMS Chief Eric Hoy said it was likely a 15-20 minute detour.

Upon receiving treatment on scene, Brown said he called 911 again to ask law enforcement officials to divide the train and open the roadway that it effectively closed.

"It took quite a while -- over an hour or so -- before they actually got the train broke," said Brown, chairman of the Centertown Board of Trustees.

"For years, we've had problems where they block all three crossings in town," he continued. "And it's been a concern for a lot of the residents of our community watch and businesses, just when and if there's ever a need for an ambulance in town, they couldn't get an ambulance."

Trains have stopped for more than an hour at all three crossings in Centertown, a village of 286 people located less than 15 miles away from Jefferson City, at least 14 times so far this year and at least twice in the last five months of 2021, according to an unofficial record Brown sent to his state representative.

Railroad tracks intersect with Centertown roadways at Oak Street, Monroe Street and Marion Street.

This year alone, the Centertown Community Watch Facebook group recorded train blockages on Feb. 16; April 18 and 26; May 3; July 1; Sept. 8; Oct. 10, 18 and 19; Nov. 22; and Dec. 4.

"I know there are a lot more dates that all the tracks have been blocked, but we have never kept a list," Brown wrote to Rep. Rudy Veit, a Wardsville Republican, in October.

Sometimes, the trains have sat blocking crossings for days, Brown said. Around Oct. 10, the gate for the Marion Street crossing was down, alarm dinging, because a parked train was stationed for the entire prior weekend, he said.

"And the residents nearby, it was driving them nuts," Brown added. "We've had (crossing gates) down for a good part of weeks on several occasions in town here."

Brown was traveling home from church during the most recent blockage Sunday and said the stalled train stopped at least 10 cars at the three crossings in town and another six cars by the Route Z crossing.

When all three railroad crossings in Centertown are blocked, Brown said, the railroad crossing at Route Z, about 1.5 miles outside of town, is the next closest path to get in. When he called for an ambulance in October, the Union Pacific train was blocking all three crossings in town and the crossing at Route Z.

"It's very heartbreaking for me as the elected official for the community to see the safety of the residents here, plus farther out in western parts of Cole County, having their safety put in jeopardy because the railroad doesn't seem to care about blocking crossings," Brown said.

Hoy, the county EMS chief, said his department is potentially delayed in responding to incidents in certain parts of the county any time there's a train parked across the tracks.

"Obviously, in the more rural locations, there's not as many access points, so a train crossing could be the single access point to an emergency on the side," he said.

Hoy said Centertown isn't the only location in the county where trains have delayed emergency medical response, "but it does seem to be that there is an increased frequency in the times where trains are affecting our ability to respond in the Centertown area."

Sometimes, Hoy said, first responders are delayed a couple minutes while they wait for trains to pass or be moved. When they're fully stopped, however, EMS finds an alternative route around the blockage, he said.

Robynn Tysver, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said the railroad company had "a couple of incidents in Centertown the past several months" that resulted in trains blocking crossings.

Two of the incidents, one in October and one last week, involved "unexpected mechanical issues," she said, adding that both took time to identify the problem and move the train.

Another stoppage occurred last weekend to let an Amtrak train pass, she said.

"We apologize for the wait times residents have experienced in Centertown due to stopped trains, blocking crossings," Tysver wrote in an email to the News Tribune.

"Union Pacific continuously works to minimize blocked crossings caused by stopped trains. Our goal is to keep trains and rail shipments moving, safely and efficiently," she added.

Brown said Union Pacific has told him that trains have also stopped because the crew on board "timed out" and another crew had to arrive to fix a stopped train.

"They always say that it's an emergency situation," Brown said. "It's sort of strange that they seem to stop and be broken down here so much."

After the incident in October, Brown asked to meet with Union Pacific, Veit, the Missouri Department of Transportation and Cole County EMS to discuss potential solutions.

MoDOT Communications Director Linda Wilson Horn said she wasn't aware of the department receiving any complaints regarding stopped trains in Centertown, but the department has more than 4,000 railroad crossings in the state.

Hoy said he thought the conversation with Union Pacific was productive. The county and railroad company discussed improving communication on when trains will be blocking crossings and what resources are available to first responders when they need a train moved.

"I would like to think that we have a better process in place than we did, but obviously any time that there's a train blocking it could lead to the delay in our response," he said.

"What we hope is that we can have increased communication and really bring heightened awareness to blocking crossings, and that in future instances that those crossings remain open or at least have the ability to be cleared rather quickly," Hoy continued.

But still, trains stopped for extended times at crossings in Centertown after the meeting.

Brown renewed his request to meet with stakeholders Sunday, and looped in Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer's Office.

The solution seemingly rests on railroad companies acting in good faith.

Since 1965, Missouri law has prevented railroad trains from blocking streets for longer than five minutes. But the state statute doesn't apply to moving trains or those "stopped because of an emergency or for repairs necessary before it can proceed safely."

"That's what they're hanging their hat on," Veit said.

Brown contacted Veit shortly after the Oct. 18 incident and said the state representative has been helpful in organizing communication between the various entities.

Veit, who has represented a large portion of Cole County since 2018, said he's heard some complaints about railroad blockages in the past but "now it's becoming more obvious that it could be a life-threatening event if you block all the lanes."

Veit said he's interested in working on the issue through conversation before considering any kind of legal action or policy measures.

But "legislatively here, I don't think we have much control over when they pull over," he said.

Railroad companies have challenged enforcement of state train stoppage restrictions and courts have struck them down in at least eight states, according to 2019 reporting from Bloomberg Government.

And the Federal Railroad Administration, the national authority on railroad transportation, isn't adopting any regulations regarding blockages, despite issues throughout the country.

"Blocked crossings pose potential safety risks: frustrated individuals may be tempted to crawl between stopped railcars, and blocked crossings can hinder emergency services' access to individuals and hospitals," the agency stated in a 2021 release.

"Communities have long dealt with the issue of blocked crossings, and any regulations regarding blocked crossings are at the state or local level. FRA has no regulatory authority; thus, it focuses on providing data, investigating crossings that have three different incidents in a 30-day window, and facilitating local solutions with railroads and local authorities," the release continued.

The Federal Railroad Administration in December 2019 established a webpage for the public and law enforcement agencies to report blocked crossings.

From the end of 2019 to Sept. 30, 2021, FRA received reports on 18,801 incidents at 5,773 crossings and performed 906 investigations. Union Pacific had the second most reported blockages with 6,350.

The Village of Centertown recently added a link to the reporting website on the homepage of its website.

Brown said he wants the state and federal agencies to find a way to make the crossing more efficient or require railroad companies to move cars so roadways remain usable.

"It's just a big headache, and it's a safety issue with the small community here," he said. "I'm tired of fighting and trying to get things done politically with them."

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