Trains can block intersections for hours. Neither Kansas nor Wichita can do much about it

Trains block traffic in Sedgwick County and cause traffic headaches. Now, Kansas lawmakers want to regulate train length, but federal law can make that nearly impossible.

by Trace Salzbrenner

While many people headed out for a date on Valentine’s Day, others were stuck behind the wheels of their cars — waiting and then waiting longer. 

Along Broadway Street from 21st to 37th streets, a train sat on the tracks unmoving. The railroad crossing signals rang for hours. 

Drivers had to choose between making a risky U-turn or waiting for the train to start moving again. 

The train blocked several crossings for at least two hours, according to complaints received on the Federal Railroad Administration’s website. 

Trains parked on tracks congest traffic and frustrate commuters, but they can also pose obstacles for police, ambulances and firefighters.

Nationwide, paramedics and firefighters report numerous instances of blocked or slowed response times because of stopped trains. 

“It’s almost inevitable that that type of thing will happen at some point,” Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell said. Blocked railroad crossings are “a weekly occurrence.”

Pedestrians are also in danger. In other communities, people climbing between train cars have been dismembered or killed after a train suddenly starts moving. One teen in Pennsylvania lost her leg while trying to get home to get ready for prom. 

But Howell and other local officials are generally powerless because attempts to pass local regulation have been overturned by federal courts.

Stopped trains – a common sight in Sedgwick County

The Federal Railroad Administration has received 35 complaints about blocked railroad crossings in Sedgwick County in the first two months of this year. Since the complaint portal launched in 2020, 501 complaints have come from Sedgwick County.  

The county doesn’t track blocked railroad crossings, making the FRA’s website the most complete and up-to-date public list. 

The most commonly blocked crossing reported to the Federal Railroad Administration is 21st Street near Broadway Street. Nearly one-fifth of complaints came from this crossing. 

“It continues to be a frustration by many people,” Howell said, “and it’s a reasonable concern.”

Three major railways run through Sedgwick County: BNSF, Union Pacific, and Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad. 

More than half of the complaints to the FRA about stopped trains in Sedgwick County focused on BNSF. A third of the complaints were about Union Pacific trains. 

A BNSF spokesperson said it does not believe blocked railroad crossings are common. Union Pacific and Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad sent emails saying they are working to ensure stopped trains become less frequent. 

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Why trains stop on tracks 

Driven by investor demands for higher profits, trains have gotten longer. Only a two-person crew is needed to run a train, regardless of length. From 2008 to 2017, trains in the United States increased in length by 25%. 

When trains stop at rail yards or pull onto a side track to let other trains pass, longer trains often stretch into residential areas to make space. 

Trains in Kansas commonly stretch three miles or longer, according to testimony to the Kansas Transportation Committee by Ty Dragoo, the Kansas legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. 

Trains also occasionally break down or need maintenance. 

That is what occurred on Valentine’s Day in Wichita. The train was picking up cars in the rail yard when it encountered a maintenance issue. Due to its length, the train had to block several rail crossings while it waited for repair. 

A spokesperson for Union Pacific said in an email that trains can also get caught up on tracks for “unplanned weather events that cause track blockages/damage, signal malfunctions, and trains operating under reduced speed restrictions.”

A Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad spokesperson said the company doesn’t own much rail line in Sedgwick County and sometimes has to wait for clearance to use the tracks.

The problem is compounded by Sedgwick County’s lack of railroad overpasses. 

Are the Wichita EMS and fire department prepared for a stopped train? 

So far, stopped trains have not notably delayed emergency services in Sedgwick County. Emergency Medical Services Chief Kevin Lanterman said that in Wichita, ambulances can reroute as needed. Small towns might be trickier since they may have fewer roadways to reach the emergency. 

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon