ANSELMO – There is a new grain loading facility under construction near Anselmo, across the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks from State Highway 2 to the north. The facility wants to be operational for the 2012 harvest season.
Land was acquired, contracts signed, agreements underway. And then things changed.
It all started Feb. 15, when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe trail collided with the trailer section of a tractor trailer unit that was crossing the tracks near the entrance to the Anderson facility. There were two trains on the track, both approaching from the west. The truck driver was turning north, across the tracks, on its way to the Anderson construction site. The driver looked west and saw one of the trains, the one closest to the highway. This train was moving at a slow rate of speed.
The driver did not see the second train. He did not know it was there until after he had crossed the tracks, but the trailer section had not. The flatbed and the machinery it was carrying were destroyed. Thankfully no one was hurt.
This is a concern, said Mike Christen, a spokesperson for BNSF’s Operation Lifesaver.
“The tracks were laid in 1887. The highway followed in the early 1900s, and the size of the vehicle back then was about the size of a good kitchen table. Once these (the railroad and the highway) are established they aren’t easy to change,” he said.
Christen said that from Anselmo to Ravenna, nearly all of the crossings will not accommodate the long vehicles we use today, the semis and stock trailers behind the pickups.
When a truck wants to re-enter the highway there is not enough clearance room between the tracks and the stop sign.
“Once the engineer throws the train into an emergency stop, it can take up to 15 seconds to release the air out of the brake system before the brakes start to apply. Using junior high math, when you take 15 seconds at 60 miles per hour, the train will travel at least a quarter of a mile before it stops. At 60 miles per hour, once the engineer sees you on the tracks it is too late.”
But this is only one side of the story. There are just as many arguments for keeping the crossing open, and Monday’s Special Meeting focused on gathering opinions.
“The railroad (BNSF) would like to close the crossing, The Andersons would like to keep the crossing open,” said Christopher Reed, Project Manger with The Andersons to open the discussion.
“We care about your opinion. We want to be good stewards of the community,” said Reed. “This is a huge customer service issue.” The Andersons facility was designed with the railroad agreeing to the blueprints at the start.
The Andersons estimate that 80-90 percent of the grain being delivered to their site will come off Highway 2. Other options are not economically feasible, for neither the Andersons and their producers, nor for Anselmo's greater community.
Neither the Anselmo Fire District nor the Merna EMTs want it closed.
Mark Christen speaking for the Anselmo Fire Department raised his concerns for response time. “If a train stops in Anselmo it covers both crossings. If your house is on fire, that's pretty much it,” he said.
Mickey Solomon of the Merna Emergency Rescue Team agreed. “Through the years one-third of our calls are up here. We need to be able to support our patients.”
Bruce Spanel speaking for the Anselmo Cemetery Board said his organization would like to see it remain open as it is. “The Cemetery Road (an alternate path into The Andersons) is neither thick enough, nor wide enough to support truck traffic."
Eugene Curtis, speaking for the Township Board said his organization would also like to see the crossing left open, but ultimately the decision rests with the Custer County Board of Supervisors.
When Anselmo Village Board Chair Scott Stupka asked if anyone else would like to speak, Don Cantrell volunteered.
If the grain trucks have to go around, that will be seven additional miles per truck, with an estimated 10,000 truck loads, that is an additional 70,000 miles of truck traffic.
“That many miles adds up to a lot,” he said.
As to the safety of the crossing, Cantrell admitted it was scary and that it is an accident waiting to happen.
“The crossing needs to be adjusted. It needs to be squared up with the road,” he said.
“We were on site with the railroad before we broke ground. They saw the plans. The plans call for gates and lights,” Reed added.
The state is talking about someday moving the highway, but that will take time.
The crowd talked of visibility, and made mention that at one time the highway ran north of the railroad. They also talked about not wanting the truck traffic through town, it became a safety issue for their children.
The questions also centered around cost and responsibility.
Who’s responsibility is it to improve the road if the trucks travel on the Cemetery Road?
Who shoulders the responsibility for squaring up the road?
What would response time become for emergency services if the crossing were closed?
How would the flood plan be impacted if the road were to be moved?
“The delay of trains will change once the double track is complete,” said Stupka.
At that point the trains can legally travel at 60 mph from Alliance to Ravenna, explained Christen.
“Traveling at 60 mph by the time the engineer sees you, it’s too late.”
If there was ever a place for a viaduct, came a voice from the back of the room, this is it.