Train blocking a crossing? Officials say best bet is to call it in

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

In Marquette and McGregor, train stories are common: A blocked crossing by Casino Queen Marquette has made more than one individual late for work, while railcars on the tracks near McGregor’s Beer and Bratz Garden have trapped boaters and diners on the riverfront. Wait times vary from just a few minutes to a reported 20, 40, even 50. Drivers worry not only about the inconvenience, but the potential impact on emergency response services. 

The situation has actually improved over the past two years, said Marquette Mayor Steve Weipert.

“There are a lot fewer long-term blockages,” he acknowledged. “The railroad is making an effort.”

“It’s hard,” added city clerk Bonnie Basemann, “because trains are so much larger now—a lot of times more than 100 cars long.”

With seven crossings between the two river towns, blockages are inevitable. Unfortunately, there’s not much local authorities can do.

In a statement on the department’s Facebook page, Marquette-McGregor Police Chief Robert Millin said the Iowa Department of Transportation Rail Transportation Bureau confirmed that Iowa Code prohibits trains from blocking crossings for more than 10 minutes—unless four broadly defined exceptions are met. That includes:

•When necessary to comply with signals affecting the safety of the movement of the trains.

•When necessary to avoid striking an object or person on the track.

•When the train is disabled.

•When necessary to comply with governmental safety regulations, including but not limited to speed ordinances and speed regulations.

“However,” noted Millin, “the courts have ruled against the state and identified the regulation of the railroad falls under the authority of the federal government. To date, this has not been addressed.”

In the past, law enforcement officers have even issued citations to railroad staff, but the DOT, on its website, admits “issuing these citations is problematic and seldom effective.”

So what’s the best course of action? Police and city officials recommend contacting Canadian Pacific Railway directly. 

The railroad is required by federal law to post a sign at each public and private crossing. These signs, which are blue in color, list a 1 (800) 716-9132 number that is a direct line to the railroad’s 24-hour dispatch center, followed by a series of letters and numbers specific to each crossing. (This information can be found in the graphic accompanying this article.)

“The [Rail Transportation] Bureau encourages all persons affected by a blocked railroad crossing longer than 10 minutes to call the 800 number. Federal law requires the railroad to log and monitor these incoming calls,” said Millin. “In the meantime, the Bureau will contact the railroad companies about the complaints in Marquette and McGregor.”

Many times, though, said Basemann, drivers aren’t able to see the sign and crossing number. If they don’t have the crossing and contact details with them, they can find the information by using the “Rail Crossing Locator” app on their smartphone. Developed by the Federal Railroad Administration, the app identifies all public and private railroad crossings along with their specific crossing numbers, and uses GPS to help drivers determine the correct one.

The city of Marquette has also provided a link to the information on its website, www.marquetteiowa.city. In addition, the “railroad information” page includes a 1 (800) 766-7912 number to contact Canadian Pacific customer service. Supply the location of the blockage, date, time and duration, even the engine number, if possible. 

“Customer service always answers those calls,” Weipert said.

“And if people don’t call,” stated Basemann, “it won’t get better.”

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