Questions and concerns from residents, school officials, hospital personnel and business owners in addition to city officials were presented at a public hearing held during the regular Sikeston City Council meeting Monday.
"We have a great deal of concern about safety, about quality of life," said Mayor Mike Marshall.
"In what ways would it benefit us other than the crossings?" asked Councilman Jerry Pullen.
Councilman Bill Stokes said he has already received many calls about the proposed increase in train traffic. "People in the city aren't in favor of this," he said.
In his opening remarks, Chris Peterson, director of government affairs for the Union Pacific Railroad, said he and the other half-dozen other railroad officials attended the hearing "so we can answer those questions with facts about our project."
Peterson said safety is a priority for his railroad, but the motivation for this project is Union Pacific's "need to improve efficiency in our rail network."
He again explained how Union Pacific is seeking to acquire the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks that run between Sikeston and Rockview to reroute about 10 or 11 southbound trains so the Dexter-Rockview line can run more northbound trains.
This directional running plan has obvious efficiency benefits for Union Pacific. What possible benefit there is for Sikeston was less clear.
Union Pacific filed a request with the Surface Transportation Board in March for authorization to increase train traffic along the Rockview-Sikeston line, according to Peterson. He said as it typically takes a year for the STB to respond, "we anticipate hearing from the STB by the end of March."
According to a letter sent to the city Nov. 30 which Peterson read from during the hearing, UP is asking the city to close street sections and relocate a sewer lift station so the railroad can build a curve connecting the north-south BNSF line with the east-west UP line.
Peterson said the railroad is offering to upgrade the city's crossings to "state of the art" and make the area eligible to be a "quiet zone" in which trains don't sound horns.
A total of $14 million in safety improvements at crossings is planned of which $2.5 million would be in Sikeston.
At the city's request, the UP is also offering to connect the city to their signal controls for crossing devices so Department of Public Safety dispatchers will know when crossing gates are going down.
DPS Director Drew Juden said anytime a 200-percent increase in train traffic is being discussed, "it causes us great concern in public safety."
Trains between 6,000 and 8,000 feet long will mean several crossings will be blocked at the same time, Juden said, but his main concern is with the number of train cars carrying hazardous materials. "That number goes up 200 percent, also," he said.
Any train derailment, with a spill or not, "is going to be a significant event," according to Juden. "In our business, unfortunately, we have to look at worst-
case scenarios and work from there." All things considered, "we just as soon the trains be routed on another route," he said.
Juden said as Sikeston has the highest population base along the tracks involved in the project, "the majority of the money should be spent here."
DPS will need to prepare its officers to respond to a hazmat situation - and that means time and training, according to Juden. "It's going to be an impact on the budget," he said. Juden said he hopes the railroad has a 100-percent safety record, "but if it doesn't happen, we're going to be the ones dealing with it."
"From our perspective, one accident is too many," Peterson assured, but he added that accidents do happen regardless of preparation. He also related statistics showing rail as the safest method of transporting hazardous materials. Trucks are an alternative, "but rail is 16 times safer than trucks," Peterson said.
Peterson said trains southbound through Sikeston would mostly be empties. Juden noted, however, that "an empty train car is not like an empty glass" and may still contain 5-8 percent of their load.
Peterson also discussed the railroad's safety education and training programs.
"You emphasized greatly safety and you also mention efficiency," said John Mobley, senior vice president for Missouri Delta Medical Center. "Did you sacrifice safety for efficiency?"
Peterson said while more trains means more risk, "I think you'll be more safe because of the crossing improvements."
Addressing concerns about blocked crossings, Peterson said a 8,000-foot long train going about 35 miles per hour only takes 3-4 minutes at a crossing and Sikeston won't have the problems Dexter has. "The crew change point at Dexter can cause some blockages," he said. "This is going to be through traffic."
At the worst, trains may only block a crossing for 10 minutes in Missouri, according to Peterson.
City Counselor Chuck Leible said it makes economic sense to route all their trains south. Peterson said he had no knowledge of plans to route any more than the 10-11 trains proposed but admitted that no further authorization from the STB would be required to do so once they are approved for an increase.
Responding to a question from Steve Borgsmiller, superintendent of Sikeston Public Schools, a UP official confirmed that under certain circumstances the railroad can impose eminent domain against the city.