A new state law went into effect Monday, which prohibits trains from blocking vehicle traffic at grade crossings for more than 10 minutes.
Failure to comply could result in a fine of up to $1,000.
But Claremore officials say the law is largely symbolic.
State Representative Mark Lepak said, “I voted yes on this bill because the number one complaint I had on the Claremore City Council was about the traffic and noise issues related to our intersecting train tracks. We have no overpasses or underpasses, and when combined with the fact that the traffic on the busier track must yield to the other, we have a lot of experience with delays.”
“Technically, local police could already write citations, and have in the past, but they were unenforceable at a practical level because of the power granted to the railroads by the federal government back in the 1800s,” Lepak said. “This bill doesn't really change any of that, in my opinion. I think it is more of a symbolic statement to the railroads.”
A number of exceptions pre-empt enforcement of the law, including: if the train is moving continuously forward or backward; if the train is stopped in an emergency, such as an accident, derailment, mechanical failure, track or bridge washout, or other emergency situations; or if the train was sitting broken apart to not block intersections and is being recoupled in order to continue.
One-time exceptions which would allow the train to sit for 20 minutes include issues when setting out or picking up railcars, stopping to allow the passage of a second train, or when stopped at a red train signal.
Claremore Police Chief Stan Brown said that issues with long waits at train crossings are fairly rare in Claremore.
In the last year-to-date, 63 complaints were registered through emergency dispatch out of the approximately 14,600 trains that ran through Claremore in that time.
“When we call about increased stoppages, the response we are given is the delays are a result of safety issues at the ‘interlocker’ or intersection of the two rails inside our city limits,” Brown said. “The interlocker delays are often complex, resulting from train movement issues outside our city.”
“The new law, though well intended, requires a complicated process for enforcement and still involves enforcement and prosecution by the Corporation Commission which gave over the right to regulate trains movement in Oklahoma to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) numerous years ago,” Brown said. “All trains operate primarily under the FRA code. The issue of separate powers will have to be resolved in short order for this to be an effective deterrent tool.”
The city of Claremore has several legal processes to go through before the municipal police force can effectively issue a citation.
“The city will have to pay for legal counsel to file the enforcement action with the Corporation Commission. The city will also have to adopt procedures to allow a police officer to issue a citation that does not reach resolution through the local municipal court,” Brown said. “This requires another layer for processing and accountability.”
As a message to railroad companies, the law was written to say it was, “immediately necessary for the safety and welfare of the people,” that “every railroad shall be operated in such a manner as to minimize obstruction of emergency vehicles at public highway grade crossings.”
According to city and state officials, railroad companies have been responsive to that message.
“I've worked directly with the railroads over the past few years, and they do want good relationships with the communities they serve and pass through,” Lepak said. “Their representatives have expressed their own frustrations with the situations we complain about.”
“The railroad system is a huge nationwide network, and an issue in another state can cause problems here,” Lepak said. “Nevertheless, blocking the intersections can be avoided, or at least minimized, and that is a function of awareness and priority by their employees.”
Brown said, “I, like any motorist, am aggravated by a train delay. Unfortunately, due to our historical street, highway, infrastructure design and spatial engineering we are sometimes captive to this inconvenience.”
“City leaders have collaboratively operated to build good rapport and communication with both railroads, the state department of transportation and state and federal congressional representatives to address this issue,” Brown said. “We must think to the future and build road and right of ways to accommodate growth for its potential instead of what we currently see our motor vehicle counts at today.”
Listing recently completed and underway projects to improve traffic around the city, City Manager Jim Thomas said, “The city has improved our communication with both railroads and we try to minimize the impact on the citizens of Claremore with the investment of new technology in traffic radar signals. Recently we improved 10 intersections on Highway 66 and JM Davis Boulevard costing almost $375,000 and we are in the final stages of an overpass on the BNSF on the south end of the city, which will bridge east and west on State Highway 20. Construction on that project should start in 2021, which is funded 100 percent by ODOT.
As previously reported, Claremore first responders managed to find their way around the trains long ago.
“The trains have been here since the fire department has been here,” Fire Chief Sean Douglas told the Progress in a previous story, explaining the foresight of previous leaders in establishing three fire stations around town to minimize the chance of everybody getting stuck on one side of the tracks.
The Claremore Fire Department runs around 2,200 calls a year with an average four-minute response time.
“Most of the delays are fairly minimal if we do have one,” he said. “If it is a serious block, we can eventually find a way around it.”
Finding a way around the problem, Douglas said, “It’s just one of those realities of living in a train town.”
“Ideally we’d like to have some underpasses or overpasses, but those are very expensive,” he said. “As a fire department we’re always supportive of those measures because they are going to help our response times and cut down the chances of being delayed.”
The Claremore Police Department is similarly prepared by having officers deployed at various spots around the city at all times and a GPS system in each car so dispatch can send the nearest car to any call that arrives.
“I can’t think of a single event in the past 12 months when a true police action was severely hampered or anyone was harmed as the result of a train delay,” Brown said.
In general, Pafford Medical Service employs the same tactic as the police department, positioning their six ambulances across town at multiple locations.
“Our dispatch center has all of the ambulances on a map and they can see every ambulance in the Pafford coverage area,” Pafford Regional Manager Sterling Nichols told the Progress in a previous story. “If they get a call on the other side of the tracks, first thing they’re going to do is look to see if they have a truck that is closer.”
“There are times that we just have to wait. Fortunately the trains do come through Claremore at a pretty high rate of speed, so the wait is usually less than 5 minutes,” he said. “Of course that can be very critical. Everything we do is based off of time.”
He said that as far as he is aware, there has not been a major incident caused by the delay.