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Rail crossing blockages, not a 10 minute fix

By Stephanie Harris-Smith, 08/23/19 9:30 AM

Hope City Manager Catherine Cook said the city is working to rectify the problem of rail crossings being blocked for very long periods at a time.

“We are receiving more complaints recently with regard to railroad crossings being blocked for longer periods of time We have visited with our local contacts and have received a variety of different answers including lack of railroad staff, inability of railroad staff to work beyond contractual hours, policy of the railroad mandating longer trains, etc.”

Many states have statutes that specify the maximum length of time that a train can block a public roadway grade crossing.

The state laws vary, but a general rule of thumb is that a blockage cannot exist for more than 20 minutes. There are numerous exceptions such as emergencies and when the blockage is a result of something beyond the control of the railroad.

For states that don’t have a law addressing the issue, there may be restrictions at the local level – cities, towns, villages and municipalities, according to online research.

Hope Police Lt. Kim Tomlin said that there are boards over issues like this that the city has to work with.” There is a process we have to go through. Our city government is working to alleviate the problem. She said in other words, “You can’t just go out and write a ticket and its resolved.”

Cook said the officials are dealing with the same stresses as everyone else with this issue.

“We understand the frustration of individuals and businesses who experience delays, annoyance, and irritation as a result of railroad crossing being blocked for several hours.

City staff experience those same problems as we go about our work and lives in Hope,” Cook said.

A personal concern of Manager Cook’s is if an emergency takes place.

“ And I am sure many other staff have also, concerns about crossings being blocked when emergency vehicles are trying to answer calls, such as police, fire, and ambulances.  There is an underpass in Hope, but a delay in answering a call could be life threatening in some cases.”

She said the city has tried reaching out to the local railroad authorities but” to little avail.” Arkansas state law regulates how cities can respond to this problem. Act 668 of 1995 altered the historic response that cities were able to take to problems such as these.

“In prior years, cities were allowed to pass ordinances regulating how long crossings could be blocked and actions that the city could directly take to deal with blocked railroad crossings, but this changed with Act 668, Cook explained.

Act 668 amended ACA 23-12-1005(a) ( paraphrased) says that if cities have problems that are ongoing, they may direct a certified letter to the registered agent of the railroad. The railroad then has 45 days to respond. If there is no response or the response is unsatisfactory, the city may send a letter to the Arkansas State Highway Commission who must hold a hearing on the matter within 60 days and can ask for sanctions. Both the city and the railroad are notified of the hearing.

The Arkansas State Highway Commission is given sole authority to regulate the railroad and railroad crossings in Arkansas, she added.

“We, the City of Hope have not yet taken the step of notifying the railroad by registered letter, but that will be the next step. It is not obviously a process that seems designed to resolve the matter in a speedy fashion, but it is the method open to us.

She also said Hope isn’t the only rail city having this problem. Other cities are also having this problem on a more frequent basis.