Federal railway police officers address issue of long train delays with local, county officials
Inconvenienced residents, Columbia County officials, local police and federal authorities all share a consensus on increasingly common train delays: Get those wheels moving.
In a step to address growing frustrations, two officers from the Canadian Pacific Railway Police Service — a force that has unique multi-state law enforcement authority — attended a traffic safety commission meeting in Portage on Friday.
Officers Jacob Jones and Brian Connor offered some explanations as to why lengthy delays might happen and provided a resource for people to share input.
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Jones said about 20 trains pass through Portage every day. Multiple fueling stations are located in the region, and Portage has one of the largest and most frequently trafficked stations in Wisconsin.
One explanation for long train delays could be fueling, Jones said. It takes a long time for trucks to load 4,000 gallons of fuel into each locomotive.
“We try not to block roads. We try to work with the community. Sometimes, there’s nowhere else to do it,” Jones said.
The issue isn’t specific to Portage. Jones said blocked railroad crossings are becoming increasingly common across Wisconsin and in Minnesota.
Columbia County Traffic Safety Commission Chairman and Sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Horn asked whether trains could be fueled in rural areas. The short answer: Fewer fueling ports are available outside of suburban or industrial settings.
A second possible cause for train delays — but by far the least likely — could be people who are trespassing on railroad tracks.
Trespassing is taken extremely seriously, Jones said, because the risks could range from suicide to a terrorist act.
Another reason for long train delays could be engine maintenance or repairs.
Portage Police Patrol Lt. Rich Hoege asked about federal standards for trains blocking roads, to which Jones replied the state standard is 10 minutes, but fueling or repairs can supersede that rule, as regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Horn suggested local police and county authorities should receive advance warnings of train delays in order to reroute traffic.
He said numerous residents have complained of prolonged train crossing blockages, some lasting over an hour at a time.
“We’re not gonna block (County Highway) P for any longer than we have to,” Jones said. “If it’s a mechanical issue, it takes a while to get to the problem. They’re hoofing it.”
Connor said when trains break down, railway executives are already sending flurries of emails within minutes as engineers try to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Whenever a train is stopped, it means the trains are losing precious time and money.
“If the wheels aren’t turning, they’re not earning,” Connor said.
The subject of prolonged train stops came up again Monday morning during a Columbia County Public Safety Committee meeting.
“They don’t want the train sitting any longer than we want it to,” Columbia County Emergency Management Coordinator Kathy Johnson said.
Columbia County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Dan Drew said he has sometimes avoided long train delays by changing his route. On multiple occasions, he’s driven through Pardeeville to get to Portage and still arrives faster than he would have otherwise by going on County Highway P.
County Board Supervisor and Public Safety Committee Chairman Barry Pufahl said long train crossing delays could pose issues for firefighters.
Pufahl said he appreciated a brief recap from Johnson, who relayed that railway police suggested county officials keep citizens up to speed on the subject and continue to share community members’ input.