Projected rise in rail activity could mean more frequent, longer waits for drivers

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Monday, May 21, 2012
— Milton Mayor Tom Chesmore was late to return a call from a constituent concerned about traffic delays caused by trains.

The mayor had been delayed by a train.

The constituent, Jon Kircher, said he wants to make it clear he's not complaining. He said he understands trains have the right-of-way.

"They're doing what they do," Kircher said. "My complaint is, we don't have any information, and I talk to people in Milton, and they're really upset about being held up in traffic.

"I can deal better with my road rage if I just knew what was going on."

Where the rail hits the road, lowered gates and flashing lights can raise motorists' blood pressures. In Milton, Kircher estimates Highway 26 traffic can back up one-half mile while a train blocks the road, and vehicles take many more minutes to get moving as they work through nearby stoplights.

Inconvenience is one thing, but the rails that bisect Milton can isolate rescue facilities on the wrong side of the tracks from an emergency.

Don't expect it to get better, railroad and state officials said. They predict train traffic will increase.

That might be good news for the local economy, but it will mean longer waits for drivers.

'As long as they want'

Local officials have little authority to combat traffic delays caused by trains.

The federal government regulates railroads, and the state regulates the safety of crossings.

Three railroads operate in Rock County. Troublesome intersections in Janesville include Five Points downtown and Highway 14 at Kennedy Road. A track cuts through Milton at Highway 26 near the Milton House and at John Paul Road.

One Janesville man wrote the Janesville city attorney in December 2010, citing a delay of 11 minutes one day and a "ridiculous" 17 minutes several days later.

Because trains engage in interstate commerce, they are regulated by the federal government. No Janesville city ordinance governs trains moving in one direction through crossings, no matter how long it takes to clear the crossings.

"If they are just moving goods through town and going in one direction and not going back and forth and doing switching, then they can take as long as they want," said Wald Klimczyk, Janesville city attorney.

Trains that are stopping or switching are prohibited by Janesville ordinances from blocking crossings for longer than five minutes or more than seven minutes out of 12 minutes. The fine is $150, although the city eventually gets about $10, with the rest going to the county and the state, Klimczyk said.

Such violations don't happen often, and the railroads generally cooperate with the city, he said.

Klimczyk remembers one instance in the 1980s when a train's crew blocked an intersection and went to lunch.

In Janesville, the complaints filed with the city attorney quite often are written by police officers and city bus drivers. A 15-minute delay means the bus system must send a van to complete the portion of the route the bus cannot access.

Rescue workers communicate with dispatchers and police officers so they know to take alternate routes to emergencies.

Doug Wood, legal counsel in the Wisconsin Railroad Commission Office, said it is "pretty clear that a state couldn't pass a law that says you cannot block crossing for 'x' amount of time if the train's moving … in one direction," he said.

If a train is stopped, "there usually is a reason why it is blocking a crossing," such as a mechanical defect, he said. Then, the railroad will try to separate the cars to open the crossing.

"The railroad is not looking to block crossings," Wood said. "They're looking to move freight. They're not making any money when the trains are sitting still."

More and longer

Jeff Plale, state railroad commissioner, agreed trains are becoming more numerous and longer.

Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, for example, is upgrading its track from Madison to Janesville.

"What used to be kind of a sleepy little line, with an occasional train—those trains are not only going to be much longer, they will be much more frequent," Plale said.

"A lot of the increase in traffic is just cars that are being added to existing trains."

Once improvements are made, trains will go faster, about 40 mph compared to 10 mph, now, said Ken Lucht, spokesman for Wisconsin & Southern. That will help ease congestion and shorten waits.

But the Court Street crossing west of Five Points is a different problem. Two rail lines cross four lanes of traffic a short distance from the convergence of five roadways. That crossing always will be less than 10 mph, Lucht said.

Plale said the increased train traffic has people asking questions.

"Suddenly, they have to wait for a train that didn't used to be there," he said.

More train traffic brings the potential for more accidents, as well.

Chesmore said the city will establish a monitoring system to track when and for how long intersections are blocked by trains.

If there's a fire on the east side of town or an accident on Highway 26 and a train is coming through the east side with 70 or 80 cars, that could present problems, Chesmore said.

He has contacted the railroads, and they understand the city's concerns.

"The amount of business they have right now … they're basically overwhelmed. We've tried to make them understand we have citizens who have concerns," he said.

"I think they're just trying to do their business and keep moving," he said. "They've explained to us that they are extremely busy, and that's why the size of the trains have increased so much."

On the other side of the equation is a business park that depends on the rail, especially the ethanol plant, he said.

Milton will get some relief when the Highway 26 bypass is finished, but that probably won't help local traffic.

"It doesn't sound like it's going to get better," Chesmore said.

Last updated: 8:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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