Claremore City Manager Jim Thomas and Police Chief Stan Brown led a discussion Monday among the city council about recent issues with blocked railroad crossings.
From March 20 to April 26, the Claremore Police Department Dispatch Center documented a total of 13 crossing blockages caused specifically by a stopped train.
The delays have been as short as 20 minutes and as long as two hours and 40 minutes on April 29, according to the police department, causing not just headaches for stuck motorists, but also public safety issues for police, fire and ambulances.
“We received a letter (from BNSF Railway) acknowledging the chief’s calls, my calls, the public’s calls,” Thomas said. “I’m not sure they’re just trying to pacify us. We’ve still got a problem.”
In the letter, BNSF Public Affairs Director Joseph Faust said the railroad has taken steps to improve its operations in Claremore.
“...the General Manager for our Springfield Division has issued a mandatory directive to all crews with operation instructions to ensure trains can proceed prior to entering the Lowry Road crossing,” Faust said. “In the event that a train must occupy the crossing and cannot continue movement, the train will be separated at the crossing to enable vehicle traffic to pass through.
“In addition, BNSF will have an operating manager physically in Claremore once a week to observe whether the directive is being followed,” the letter continues.
Thomas expressed doubt that the new protocols laid out in the letter would resolve the issues.
“I don’t see this as a long-term solution. I guess only time will tell,” he said. “Several weeks ago, we had gridlock in the city. We had two railroads stopped for hours at a time. There is not a lot of communication between BNSF and UP (Union Pacific).”
Thomas added that there is more train traffic than ever before, and since it’s at capacity, if there is work being done at a crossing, the whole system gets backed up.
Brown said while local police departments have no authority over the railroads, he suggests the city “put pressure (on the railroad) on an ongoing and continuous basis” until they fix the problem.
“We need to make enough noise that the ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease,’” he said. “We need to put pressure on these two public affairs people. We’ve got to get people from those organizations to the table to talk to us.”
Thomas said he has tried every avenue of communication, but has received very little response.
“Time and time again, they’re going to get it fixed,” Thomas said “This is the first time I’ve gotten a written document.”
He added that a few months ago, BNSF left cars on the rail spur owned by the Claremore Industrial and Economic Development Authority (CIEDA) at the Claremore Industrial Park north of town.
“It took them 30 days to move them,” Thomas said. “I asked them, ‘who gave you permission to leave cars on our spur, and they basically said, ‘We’re BNSF, we can do whatever we want.’”
Not only do stopped trains tie up the police department’s resources when officers have to be sent out to direct traffic, Brown said, but they create public safety issues when law enforcement and emergency services can’t get across town.
“I would like (the council’s) assurance that I can express that you as a whole are frustrated,” Brown said. “It’s not just me.”
Councilor Will DeMier asked if the city could invite BNSF representatives to a council meeting to address the public and answer questions.
“I proposed that, councilor, and they are very fearful of coming to Claremore,” Thomas said.
Added DeMier, “Then let them give the public a reason why they won’t be here.”
The council agreed something must be done as citizen frustration remains high.
“It’s the major complaint of our constituents,” Councilor Paula Watson said.
BNSF Public Affairs Director Joseph Faust can be reached at (817) 867-6427 or Joseph.email@example.com.