- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

NEW SALEM, N.D. (AP) - The mayor of New Salem has had her fill of kids crawling under railroad cars and people driving around crossings when the arms are down with no train in sight.

Lynette Fitterer said she communicates to solve problems in town, but that hasn’t worked with the BNSF Railway. Trains constantly cut the town in half, sometimes for hours at a time. All night long, the incessant “ding ding ding” of the crossing warnings makes it hard for some people to sleep.

“We’re sick of it,” she said. “It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s happening more and more and more. We’ve tried not to bash the railroad, but people get angry.”

Without a permanent solution, such as an underpass or a change on the railroad’s part, the situationint New Salem and other towns along the line won’t improve any time soon, the Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1xlzPVG ) reported.

BNSF’s rail traffic in North Dakota is at an historic high, with outbound train volume up by nearly 200 percent since 2009 and inbound up nearly 120 percent.

The remarkable train volume - a train every 45 minutes through New Salem, on average - carries everything from grain commodities to construction materials to crude oil in North Dakota’s multifaceted boom economy.

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New Salem isn’t the only town fit to be tied. Rhame, on the BNSF southern track, is aiming to get the Federal Railroad Administration involved. There’s only one crossing in tiny Rhame, and it’s frequently blocked, a city councilman says. The alternatives out the “back” way are on gravel and add many minutes to emergency response.

Hebron had a similar problem with trains blocking at least one of three crossings for days at a time, said Ken Rehling, city council president.

He said he called at least a dozen times, and BNSF recently extended siding track to move trains through.

“If more of this comes up, we will stay on it,” Rehling said.

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In New Salem, Fitterer said she doesn’t want the town labeled anti-railroad, but she said it’s time for BNSF to present a solution.

She said kids are warned not to crawl under or climb through train couplings and adults know better than to wind around the arms when they’ve waited at an empty track for long periods of time. But a second crossing at the other end of town is a far walk for kids, and it’s frequently blocked, too.

The mayor said people routinely call the 800 number on the crossing shack, like Rehling did in Hebron. A dispatcher in Houston takes the calls, but nothing happens, even though the railroad’s policy is trains should be “cut” and the crossing open after 10 minutes.

“We all call,” she said.

“I called the number on the building and said, ‘If something happens and there’s an emergency we can’t get to, you guys are so liable,’” she said of a blockage that lasted more than two hours.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the 10-minute rule isn’t hard and fast, because cutting a train and re-hooking it takes substantial time.

“The crew may judge it will take longer to cut the train and it’s more efficient to keep it together and move out,” she said.

She said she’s worked on behalf of New Salem and Rhame to get crews to stop ahead of crossings where they can, or cut the trains if they’re not moving out.

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That fear of not being able to answer a fire or ambulance call in time has city councilman Scott Luvaas on a mission and he doesn’t plan to stop until BNSF extends a siding long enough to hold trains outside town instead of through it.

Not long ago, Rhame emergency responders’ worst fears came true.

A 911 call came in from a man who was having trouble breathing. A train was blocking the crossing, so the responders took the back way around, and when they arrived at the residence, the man was no longer breathing and had died.

“It would have taken us 10 to 15 minutes less to get there without that train, and, if it hadn’t been across the track, we would have had a better chance to save his life,” Luvaas said.

“We’re trying to get the federal agency involved for some sort of peaceful resolution,” Luvaas said. “We don’t have any money for lawyers and, besides, how do you fight the railroad? Do you know how much money they made last year?”

Luvaas said, with more trains coming through, trains often block access in and out of town two or more times a day.

“I just want it to end. I’m tired of the railroad taking advantage of small towns. They don’t do this in big cities. Why do we have to suffer?” Luvaas asks.

Dane Fuchs, New Salem’s public works director, got into some hot water with a BNSF employee recently over the issue. After yet another instance of lowered crossing arms, but no train, he went around the arms then got out of his pickup to discuss the situation with a crew working nearby.

“I asked, ‘Why are the arms down? Why do we have to ask all the time? This has been going on for years, and it never changes,’” he said.

One of the employees, a woman, used foul language before getting back into her truck and then pushed him when he walked up to continue the discussion, according to Fuchs.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department said the BNSF employee called in the incident, but no charges were filed.

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Fuchs said he’s willing to pay a fine for driving around the arms, but he said the railroad is almost training people to do that because it so frequently bars an empty crossing.

“I told them, ‘You have created a problem here,’” Fuchs said.

New Salem city councilwoman Aglae Young said BNSF should have more civic responsibility toward the town instead of blocking crossings “daily and sometimes all night.”

“The railroad should be less arrogant and a little bit more caring,” she said.

Young said it may take a task force of some kind, among railroad communities, to devise a solution.

“An underpass would help, but there’s no way the city can afford that,” she said.

McBeth said BNSF participates minimally in both overpass and underpass projects, but it is investing $400 million in North Dakota this year, including new siding to the east of New Salem at Judson and the extended siding at Hebron.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com


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