During Monday's regular Sikeston City Council meeting, Chris Peterson, Union Pacific's director of government affairs and corporate relations for the state, presented his railroad's plan to improve its efficiency by "what we've described as a line swap."
The railroad industry has experienced dramatic change, according to Peterson. Now, instead of seeking out customers, the Union Pacific Railroad has too many customers wanting to put cars on their railroad.
To deal with all the additional business, Union Pacific is making infrastructure investments such as doubling tracks, putting in additional sidings and straightening curves to allow their trains to run faster.
The railroad is also making efforts to facilitate "directional running" where possible, Peterson said, which is where a track is used to run trains in one direction and another nearby track for the opposite direction. This provides "the opportunity to improve the efficiency of the railroad," he said.
If approved by the Surface Transportation Board, Union Pacific would trade one of its railroad lines in Colorado for the Northern Burlington Santa Fe line running from Rockview in northern Scott County through Sikeston. Union Pacific would then be able to use directional running by routing southbound traffic on this line and northbound traffic on the Dexter-Rockview line.
Peterson said approval by the STB is not likely before March and, if approved, the lines would not be ready for the change until the end of 2006.
Once all the changes are approved and in place, Union Pacific would run an additional 10-11 trains per day through Sikeston.
"We understand that an increase in train traffic can cause concern in a community," Peterson said. He assured, however, that "safety is a top priority, if not the top priority, for our railroad."
Peterson said the railroad intends to have public discussion, will work with the department of transportation on crossing upgrades, and will talk with city officials regarding the possible implementation of a quiet zone.
In quiet zones, trains are prohibited from blowing horns through intersections, Peterson explained. Quiet zones can only be implemented if intersections have lights and gates so several crossing upgrades would be necessary. He added that Union Pacific mostly opposes quiet zones because of safety issues.
Crossing upgrades would be paid for by the railroad in cooperation with the transportation department, Peterson said.
Peterson also advised council members that Union Pacific is requesting the city close and vacate portions of Maud and Frisco and move a lift station northwest to enable the railroad to make improvements there. The lots alongside those sections of road are vacant and owned by the railroad.
"Safety is a concern of our city, also," said Mayor Mike Marshall. "Increased train traffic is definitely a concern."
Another concern voiced by the public was regarding the time intersections would be blocked.
Union Pacific trains moving through Sikeston would be moving at 30 mph, limited to 8,000 feet in length and will not stop in Sikeston, Peterson said, so intersections will be blocked "only a few minutes at most."
Most of the cars will be empty or consist of empty car racks, although some may contain auto parts bound for Mexico or grain, according to Peterson.
Drew Juden, director of the Department of Public Safety, noted that after requesting on several occasions a top 10 list of chemicals that would be moving through Sikeston and filling out required forms, "I still don't have anything."
As "empty" chemical cars can contain up to 5 percent of the 30,000 gallon total load, they still contain a substantial amount of chemicals, Juden noted.
Juden also asked if DPS could get track sensors so they know when trains are coming and can anticipate blocked crossings.
Upon questioning from Chuck Leible, city counselor, Peterson admitted that while Union Pacific only plans to increase the number of trains moving through Sikeston by 10 or 11 per day, they could later raise that number to 20 or more.
Peterson also clarified that STB approval is only needed for the line swap, not for increases in traffic.
Ed Throop, executive director of the Sikeston Board of Municipal Utilities, noted that while Sikeston residents are very concerned about Union Pacific's plan, "this town needs the coal."
Peterson assured BNSF will continue to have access to the line and BMU can continue to competitively bid coal train service.
City officials and Peterson agreed to set a public hearing for the regular City Council meeting on Dec. 5.