In many cities across the Minnesota prairie, local officials have been appealing to railroads and to state and federal leaders for some relief from traffic tie-ups at rail crossings caused by long and frequent freight trains.
But the city of Benson, 125 miles west of the Twin Cities, is trying to use a different kind of persuasion: traffic tickets for trains.
The city cited BNSF four times earlier this year for violating a state law that prohibits trains from blocking intersections for more than 10 minutes. The railroad, which contends federal railroad regulations conflict with state laws, hasn't paid the nearly $1,200 it's run up in possible fines. City and railroad officials met in early May to discuss some practicalities at crossings, but the traffic ticket issue is going to court later this month.
City manager Rob Wolfington said he acknowledges that the railroad's success can also be Benson's success. Some of the main industries in town — the ethanol plant, a grain exporter, a propane storage and distribution operation — rely on the railroad. The electric plant needs the coal delivered via the railroad, he noted.
But, as is frequently the case, growing cities along rail lines have developed on both sides of the tracks, sometimes with emergency services cut off from residents who need them. In Benson — Swift County's county seat — police, fire and the hospital are south of the tracks; the sheriff, ambulance and nursing home are north. Half-hour delays crossing the tracks are common, said Wolfington, adding that he was caught for 45 minutes recently trying to get back to his office.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in an e-mail response that the railroad tries to work with communities to resolve issues such as blocked crossings. Benson, she added, presents "unique challenges" with the locations of some housing developments and the fact that its crossings are close together.
A decade ago, Wolfington said, during a similar railroad boom, trains often blocked crossings while engineers had to walk the length of the train to throw a switch. Responding to the city's concerns, the railroad began stationing employees in Benson around the clock to drive engineers to the switches. Wolfington said he'd like to see some new technology installed to ease the current tie-ups — such as switches that could be switched electronically from elsewhere in the country.
"The railroad is going to be here when this is finished," he said. "We understand that. We're learned to live with the railroad. But as public officials we can't live with those kinds of risks to public safety."