The United States has one of the most intricate rail systems in the world. Over 140,000 miles of railroad crisscross the nation, according to the Federal Rail Administration. Railcars transport goods over thousands of miles, passing through mountains, prairies, large metropolitan area and small towns -- thousands of towns. Claremore shares a narrative similar to many other train towns across the country.
Train traffic is increasing as industries look for efficient ways to transport raw material and finished products. As a town experiences growth, automobile traffic increases, and when trains interact with a growing community it results in congestion and frustration.
"Trains are 100 percent a nuisance. It is a situation where 130 years ago railroads were a part of the settlement, but after the evolution of the automobile it became a loud nuisance. The whole west side of town is blocked off and they blare the sirens all the time," said Bob Wade, city manager of Noble, Okla.
Noble has five sections of the town with one way in and one way out and the trains sometimes stop for an hour or longer, blocking traffic too and from little league fields, rodeo stadiums and residential areas.
"The corporation commission has guidelines that requires engineers to break a train if it stops over a certain amount of time, but there are so many exceptions which allow trains to do anything they want to do. They are sovereign," said Wade. "It is a major safety problem for us."
Trains also impact the development opportunities for Noble.
"The trains blow a horn we can hear 10 miles away. It is difficult trying to develop nice residential subdivisions, because people do not want to build by the loud trains," said Wade.
Noble city leaders recently met with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) to discuss potential solutions to relieve gridlock the city experiences every time a train stops, and the nuisance of the horn policies for the town.
"BNSF was very cordial to meet with us, but basically, what was determined was, they could do precious little for us, and could offer very little money to help solve the problem," said Wade. "After speaking with them we are back to square one. We were disappointed. What we were told was not very encouraging."
Wade said the city of Noble is working to build an easement road, which would provide a secondary route out for the west side of town, but the project is expensive and the railroad will do little to help with the burden of the cost.
"There is nothing we can do. If the train traffic is so bad we cannot conduct business, well that means the economy is good. That is the only good thing, they remind me when the economy is doing well," said Wade.
Wade said the city of Noble has tried many options to alleviate the train problem, all of which failed. The city has tried writing citations, but Wade said the train company just sends a check and continues to block crossings as normal. The city has tried calling the emergency number, which usually requires leaving a message, unless the call is a real emergency, and then a dispatcher will just give an estimation of when the train will clear the section. The city has also tried discussing the problem with state directors and governmental bodies assigned to the region.
The city captured data on how many times and how long trains blocked the intersection closest to Noble city hall, but Wade said the governing entities would take the information and nothing would happen to solve the problem.
"I think they are legitimately trying to do what is best for business, but their primary goal is not to satisfy the city," said Wade.
Oklahoma is not the only state that has to live with rail crossing challenges. An increase in oil transportation has significantly increased train traffic, which has significantly impacted towns in Minnesota, such as Benson.
Last year Benson city officials issued $1,200 in tickets to BNSF, and the railroad argued the tickets in court stating federal rail regulations have supremacy over state traffic laws. The courts agreed.
"We lost in district court. A small town taking on big railroads isn't going to work," said Rob Wolfington, Benson city manger. "We just have to acknowledge railroad's constitutional rights are higher than local traffic. Railroad individuals are pleasant to work with, but they are large organizations. It is hard enough for the railroads to talk to one another, and they go through probably 1,000 towns and do not have the capacity deal with the towns individually."
Amy McBeth, a Burlington Northern spokesperson based in Minnesota, told television station KARE 11, "Railroad operations are regulated at the federal level, to ensure efficient operation of the national railroad network."
Wolfington said their town has a newspaper article from 1890 that reports, "Merchants in town and engineers of teams of horses have to wait their pleasure while a train goes through the center of town."
The train problems in Minnesota caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has authored The Railroad Reform, Enhancement and Efficiency Act to help states address safety concerns and blockages at rails. She is encouraging the Department of Transportation to help develop information-sharing technology to aid in first response to rail incidents.
"As the Secretary of Transportation develops rail crossing action plans for states, my provision would ensure the plans address the dangers of blocked crossings. I look forward to this provision moving forward, and I will continue doing everything I can to improve rail safety across Minnesota and the country," Klobuchar said in a press release.
Olathe, Kan., has two BNSF rails that divide their town.
The town has investigated solutions for the past 60 years, and it wasn't until 2008 that the town implemented a plan that relieved the congestion, and was ultimately successful. The solution was a raised rail project on their eastern rails, and a quiet zone on the western rails. The project cost $67 million. While the quiet zone did not solve the traffic problems on the western rails, it did improve quality of life for the commuters and residents.
Olathe has been a suburb of Kansas City for 160 years. It started as a small town located near the railroad until it began growing exponentially.
"Certainly the project has been a resounding success. It has helped change perception dramatically and addresses the number one priority. It took a very long time to get to this point, but I am confident saying we have overwhelming support from our residents," said Tim Danneberg, Olathe city spokesperson. "Archives show we could have done the project in the 50s for $1 million, but it was a different town back then, it was a smaller town."
Danneberg said the city leaders addressed concern about the aesthetics of a raised rail by investing in art and other aesthetic elements.
"Our thought was for a good percentage of the time trains were already blocking the view of our town. With the raised rail we have eliminated a division," said Danneberg. "Every town is unique and we invested in what our taxpayers said they wanted."
Towns across the country were built near railroads for practical transportation purposes more than 100 years ago, and now these towns are looking for practical solutions to increased traffic and safety concerns.