Two extended blockages of all railroad crossings in town frustrate, inconvenience drivers; new FRA contact could help alleviate issue

When the train whistle blows in Galva, it’s only natural that drivers get a little nervous about having an extended wait at the railroad crossings.

Traditionally, those blockages have lasted in the 10-20 minute range. But two recent incidents during busy drive times returned the issue to the forefront.

“Two incidents we hope do not a trend make,” said Galva city administrator David Dyer. “They are the longest I’m aware of since I’ve been in Galva.”

The two incidents of extended blockages — at every crossing in town — occurred within the span of a week, Nov. 8 and 14, and were both more than an hour in length.

“We haven’t been able to determine a cause,” Dyer said. “It’s unlikely we’ll never get an explanation.”

The recent blockages have clarified one issue — the long-held local belief that it’s illegal for the railroad to block all crossings in town for an extended period of time. Tammy Wagner, regional crossing manager for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), debunked that popular theory.

“Tammy’s first sentence back to me was rather depressing,” Dyer said. 

That sentence by e-mail read — “The Federal Railroad Administration does not have any regulation regarding blocked crossings.”

“That shocked me, actually,” Dyer said. “I bought into that theory. I’ve heard it ever since I came to Galva.”

But Dyer said the next sentence provided some relief.

Wagner added the FRA works with railroads to mitigate blocked crossing issues, and she contacted the Burlington Northern Santa Fe to let them know Galva submitted a complaint to the FRA.

“I’m very confident that she did,” Dyer said, noting he’s met Wagner in person here in Galva.

“If she (Wagner) calls and says we are seeking some relief for Galva, I suspect the BN pays attention and listens to what she says,” Dyer added.

Prior to establishing the connection with Wagner at the FRA, Dyer said the popular route for blockage relief was to call former State Rep. Don Moffitt. Moffitt was known for having a great relationship with the BNSF and was adept in dealing with the blockages.

“He was fortunate enough that he didn’t face these two,” Dyer said of the retired Moffitt. “So Rep. (Dan) Swanson received the phone calls from us this time.”

Swanson called the BNSF immediately  and the train eventually moved — but contacting the railroad usually means making several calls and finally being connected to the right person, which takes time.

“We decided we would seek additional avenues for relief,” Dyer said.

He tried the Illinois Commerce Commission and was informed it couldn’t help with the issue, but the ICC recommended the FRA and that’s when Wagner entered the picture. Since connecting with Wagner, Galva has not experienced a significant blockage at the railroad crossings. Dyer said in the past, BNSF has been kind enough to stop short of Galva, and he believes that Wagner asked them to return to that procedure.

The two November blockages created all sorts of issues for those stuck at the crossings. 

The Nov. 8 blockage started at 7:05 a.m. and the train didn’t start moving until 8:35 a.m. Students and teachers were late for school, and two ladies were late for their first day of work at a new job. The second lengthy blockage on Nov. 14 lasted from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m.

“Of course the scenario that everyone fears is an emergency and no emergency equipment is available,” Dyer said.

The city has a plan in place in case that situation arises — an emergency north of the tracks means Cambridge is called for assistance and south of the tracks Kewanee gets the call. If there’s no response from the initial calls for assistance, calls are placed to the next nearest communities. 

As far as Dyer can recall, an emergency situation has yet to arise with the crossings blocked.

“Ten minutes with a fire can make a whole lot of difference. We don’t like to be put into that position,” he said.

For those longing for an overpass at one of the crossings in town, there just isn’t enough room for such a remedy.

Dyer said he’ll continue to work with Wagner and Rep. Swanson if the need arises in the future.

If another extended blockage occurs, Dyer encouraged residents to call BNSF’s Fort Worth, Texas, office (817-867-6369) and Rep. Swanson (217-782-8032 for the Springfield office and 309-334-7474 for the Woodhull office).

“In my mind, that did nothing but help,” Dyer said of the calls Galva residents made during the two blockages. “The more people that call, the better.”

“I’m comfortable at this point,” Dyer added. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and we do have an avenue now beyond our local representatives.”