Benson cannot ticket trains blocking downtown intersections
BENSON — The city of Benson cannot issue tickets to trains that sometimes block three major intersections for lengthy periods of time.
District Judge Donald Spilseth dismissed seven citations that Benson police had issued to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company for allegedly violating a state statute by blocking the 12th, 13th, and 14th Street crossings in the downtown for more than 10 minutes on dates in January, March and April of this year.
In an order filed earlier this month, the judge found that federal law pre-empts the state statute.
The city of Benson has reviewed the order and does not plan to appeal it, according to City Attorney Ben Wilcox.The city is not willing to take on the costs of an appeal on its own. The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office declined to join the city in an appeal, although it was willing to file a “friend of the court’’ brief in support of the state statute, he explained.
BNSF has made changes in Benson aimed at reducing the length of time that intersections are blocked, according to Amy McBeth of BNSF.
In response to the court order, McBeth stated that “BNSF works with communities where possible to minimize the impact of our operations at the same time we’re investing record capital to move Minnesota’s and all of our customers’ commodities more efficiently along our Northern Corridor.
“We have made adjustments in Benson that have helped limit blocked crossings in town and we expect to continue those efforts. At the same time, it is important to recognize the nationwide nature of a rail network and this order does that.”
In an affidavit filed earlier with the court, the railroad acknowledges that Benson is experiencing more blocked crossings. Train traffic has been increasing due to growth in train traffic, in particular from North Dakota.
The BNSF rail line runs east and west parallel to Atlantic Avenue in downtown Benson, and crosses three of the main north-and-south vehicle routes: 12th, 13th and 14th Streets.
Two main BNSF lines meet at Benson, one coming from Aberdeen, S.D., and the other from Morris. A wye on the western edge of town allows trains to switch from one line to the other; in some cases they must switch so that oncoming trains can pass.
In its affidavit, the BNSF stated that it is “almost impossible to perform the switch maneuver in less than 10 minutes …. ”
A person must disembark from the train to throw the switches. Security systems on the switching gear require that the locomotive be near the switching gear, and the switch can only be operated after a seven- to eight-minute delay due to the security needs.
The railroad has made a variety of operational changes to speed the process. A private firm is hired to transport the conductor to the switching gear by vehicle. The railroad encourages engineers to separate trains and keep crossings open if lengthy switching operations are needed. Special equipment is available to allow re-joined trains to charge their air brakes systems faster and speed up their departure.
The railroad has also worked to improve communications between railroad dispatchers and engineers on the trains.
In the affidavit, it acknowledged that in one incident on January 17, the blockage occurred when a train “unexpectedly’’ was given a red light, forcing it to stop in Benson.
Wilcox said the city has discussed its concerns with the railroad and believes the railroad will continue to look at what it can do to reduce the length of blockages.
The city has also retained Stantec Consulting of St. Paul to perform a $20,000 study of the railroad crossings and provide options for the city. At this point, there is no specific proposal for how to reduce the predicament the city experiences, according to Wilcox.
The blocked intersections are a source of much frustration for motorists, and a safety concern for city officials. The blocked trains slice the city into north and south segments. In findings accompanying his order, Judge Spilseth noted that the Swift County Sheriff’s Office, Northside Elementary School, and Benson High School are located north of the rail line. The Swift County Benson Hospital, the Benson Police Department, and the Benson Fire Department are located south of the line.
The city had once sought $1.45 million in state funding to develop a paved, emergency access road on the east end of town to allow emergency vehicles to respond to calls when trains block the intersections.