Benson tickets BNSF for blocking crossings
BENSON — It’s not your typical parking ticket that is being contested in district court in Swift County.
The BNSF Railroad entered not guilty pleas to the citations in a brief court hearing in Benson on Friday, according to Ben Wilcox, Benson city attorney. He said it was only an initial step in the matter. The court will be scheduling a motion hearing in the coming weeks.
Wilcox said he could not discuss an on-going police investigation.
The city’s concerns about trains blocking the three main intersections date at least to the mid-1990s, when the volume of train traffic was less than one-half of what it is today.
The busy BNSF line connecting Fargo-Moorhead and the Twin Cities cuts through the community. Also, a spur line from Watertown, S.D. connects to the line west of Benson’s downtown.
A manual switch must be thrown for trains to enter the main line from the spur.
The city has asked the railroad to automate the switch. The city has also discussed the possibility of an overpass, but has not been able to line up funding for the idea, according to Mayor Paul Kittelson.
The city had also sought $1.45 million in state funding at one point to develop an all-weather, emergency access road on the east end of town for emergency vehicles that might be blocked by trains.
Mayor Kittelson said the city has worked with the railroad in the past to address the concerns. One result is the city is one of only a very few in the country that can directly call train locomotive engineers and request that a train be moved during an emergency.
But the mayor said he and others are concerned that the engineers might not be able to move the trains quickly enough in response to an emergency call. In an emergency, minutes can be the difference between life and death, he noted.
That’s not to mention the frustrations that many motorists have expressed as they’ve waited for motionless trains. The mayor said there have been instances where stalled trains have blocked the crossings long enough to make people wonder if they’ve broken down.
The mayor noted that the trains carry many tankers with oil from North Dakota, and most expect that traffic on the line will only increase.