Railroad crossing bill approved in State Assembly

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By Ted Pennekamp


A bill authored by State Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby), which would allow pedestrians to walk directly across a clear stretch of railroad track without facing a fine for trespassing, has passed in the Wisconsin State Assembly by a vote of 59-34.

Nerison said Assembly Bill 876 is in response to citizen concerns that strict enforcement of railroad trespass laws by railroad companies would put hundreds of miles of Mississippi River shoreline off limits to hunters, anglers, trappers, and outdoor enthusiasts. 

In a press release Friday, Nerison said more than 100 DNR properties are crossed by railroad tracks, effectively restricting access to public recreational areas throughout the state. Nerison said he is concerned about a loss of tourism dollars and the discouragement of successive generations of outdoor enthusiasts if they must own land in order to develop their passion.

“Wisconsin is fortunate to have significant, unique natural areas and public properties. For over 150 years, it was legal to cross a railroad track to enjoy them. That action became illegal in 2005 and it’s time to change the law back to what it was,” Nerison said.

Railroad representatives say, however, that the 2005 law was enacted for the public’s safety and that the railroad companies are trying to educate the public about safety while also working with state agencies to perhaps create more crossings that the public can cross along the Mississippi River shoreline.

“For about the past year, we have been conducting an education campaign with the public,” said Amy McBeth, the director of public affairs for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF). “We began this with the addition of a new railroad police officer stationed in La Crosse. The purpose of the outreach is to improve public safety through education about the safest, legal places to cross railroad tracks - designated crossings. 

“In response to interest in more areas for crossing the railroad tracks, we are looking at the potential for additional public crossings in that corridor. That would involve working with the state agencies to evaluate specific locations for additional crossings and we have been having those discussions.”

The Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Railroads has jurisdiction to approve new public railroad crossings. Railroads can also enter into agreements to create private crossings.

Sabrina Chandler, manager of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, said she is working with user groups to find high-use areas that don’t currently have a crossing.

“We want visitors to be able to access the refuge legally and safely. In order to facilitate that access, we encourage the use of established crossings. We are, however, exploring the need/opportunity for additional crossings by working with our partners to establish where those may be needed. Once that process has been completed, I intend to present a request to BNSF to determine the feasibility of establishing those crossings.” 

McBeth said BNSF has not issued any citations for trespassing because they have been conducting their educational effort. She said BNSF would work with local law enforcement, who would issue citations. McBeth said BNSF has railroad police stationed at various locations throughout its network. They assist with security, respond to emergencies, interact with the public and work with local law enforcement.

Ken Lucht, the director of government relations at Wisconsin and Southern Railroad (WSOR), said WSOR’s operation in Crawford County is from St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien to Bridgeport. WSOR does not operate the rail line along the Mississippi River. Lucht said WSOR does not have a police force and has not been handing out citations.

Lucht said a railroad police officer has the authority to issue a citation as a result of trespassing, but he is not aware of any railroad police officers writing tickets. 

“They do random patrols and hand out educational materials, but tickets have not been issued,” said Lucht.

Lucht noted that people crossing over railroad tracks or fishing from railroad trestles are a definite safety concern. 

“Every year people are injured and/or killed while walking on tracks or fishing on tracks. Here in Wisconsin, trespassing fatalities and injuries are at their highest levels since 2003,” said Lucht. “In the last decade, our company has seen numerous trespassers get injured and killed because they weren’t aware of the inherent dangers of walking on railroad property. Trespassing is extremely dangerous, hazardous and not advisable. People should cross the tracks at designated legal and approved crossings where there is a flat surface, no tripping hazards, and adequate safety protection in the event a train is coming. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), trespassing deaths in 2014 rose 22 percent from the year prior.”

In 2014 and the first nine months of 2015, there were 21 people killed while trespassing on Wisconsin railroads, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. A third of those were people who were sitting or lying on the tracks. In four instances, the person went around crossing gates. There were two men who fell while walking across railroad bridges. FRA reports show that two of the 21 killed were anglers.

The fight between railroad safety concerns and Mississippi River access will continue but Nerison’s bill has now cleared the hurdle of the Wisconsin State Assembly. The bill will now move to the Wisconsin State Senate for consideration. Should it pass the senate, Gov. Walker must sign the bill for it to become law.

“I know that taking on the railroad companies is an uphill battle. But we’ve moved down the tracks, so to speak, in getting this through the assembly. I thank everyone for the hard work and support and it’s time to focus on the senate and governor to get this sensible bill to become law,” Nerison said.

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