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Your view: Go North

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

In the discussions with Union Pacific about where the should run their trains, the stakes are higher than it first appears. A little background is important.

The goal for Union Pacific is to manage their traffic along their St. Louis to Houston corridor. Most of that line is single track which means that southbound trains must wait for the northbound trains to pass and vice versa.

From their filing with the Surface Transportation Board, we know that Union Pacific's goal is to achieve "directional running" in the area between Rockview, Mo. (about a mile north of Chaffee) on the northeast and Dexter on the southwest. That means they want dedicated northbound and southbound lines in Scott and Stoddard counties. It's a reasonable thing for them to do, as it will allow them to put more trains on this St. Louis to Houston corridor at the same time.

It's important to realize, though, that their lines north and east of Rockview and south and west of Dexter will remain single tracked. This means that if their request is granted, our area will now become part of their traffic management. When they need to stack trains, they'll do it here.

Burlington Northern trains come to Sikeston for one reason only (besides delivering coal, and hopefully some day corn, during which their trains pull off onto sidetracks). Their trains come here to get through as quickly as possible. Union Pacific's trains will be coming here to get through sometimes, and sometimes to park.

To understand what can happen, consider the real life case of a derailment in Bell City last September. It was a minor accident. Two locomotives and a corn hopper went off the track. With what seems like remarkable efficiency, it took the railroad only 11 1/2 hours to get them back on the track and their way. Yet during that time, the newspaper reported that 50 trains stacked up.

If those trains were divided evenly between southbound and northbound, obviously 25 of them were headed south. Union Pacific plans for their dedicated southbound track to come through Sikeston, and they talk about their trains becoming a mile long and longer.

Following even a minor derailment somewhere to our south then, trains would stack up, starting in Dexter, 25 miles and further back to the east. That would block U.S. Highway 60 and the streets of Sikeston for unknown periods of time. Of course, everyone would be sorry.

Is that the railroad's intention? Of course not, but they don't plan derailments either. The point is that their purpose in using these lines in the first place will be for traffic management. Occasionally that means stacking trains, in the words of UP spokesman James Barnes, "in case of train delays."

Another spokesman for Union Pacific, Chris Peterson, brushed aside these concerns in public hearings. He cited a Missouri law that prohibits a train from blocking a crossing for longer that eight minutes. That comment was disingenuous. He knows full well that all state laws concerning railroads were swept aside when the federal government pre-empted the states on railroad matters. That state law in unenforceable. His next line should have been to tell us it was raining.

Ask anyone in Dexter or Chaffee whether trains ever block their streets for longer than eight minutes. In Dexter, the railroad even has a sign with a telephone number to call if their trains block streets that long. That's nice, but I've talked to people in Dexter. No one answers the phone.

So, our concerns should not be limited to 10 to 20 new mile-long trains coming through our city at 45 mph (up from the current 20) into a tight 90 degree turn. Our concerns should include trains that come to Sikeston and run at 0 mph.

Fortunately, there's an alternative. Union Pacific can get their "directional running" by double-tracking (laying a parallel line) on their direct line between Rockview and Dexter. This idea is not anti-railroad. It was actually Union Pacific's "Plan A." They were buying right-of-way along this line to widen it until someone decided it would be cheaper (for them) to come south.

This northern route would still achieve the efficiencies for Union Pacific. They could run as many trains as they can fill, but these trains would be out in the countryside where they belong.

More can be said in favor of this "northern option." In the meantime, we can thank Martin Priggel. He's our soft-spoken, problem-solving Presiding Scott County Commissioner, and the man who first proposed it. He probably won't tell you. I just did. Martin, we're gonna miss you.

Josh Bill