Folks in Buffalo are running late a lot these days. And if they say they got held up by a train, the boss tends to believe them.
Canadian Pacific (CP) freight trains, which Buffalo residents believe are longer and more numerous than ever thanks to the North Dakota oil boom, have increasingly been blocking intersections, cutting off the city's north side from its south side and sending drivers scrambling sometimes out of town to find an open crossing.
But it's not just long trains rolling slowly through town. In November, two of the city's three crossings were blocked for 16 hours overnight by a train that had stalled due to mechanical problems, then was left parked when crew members reached the end of their shift and went home.
On Feb. 27, a train was halted in Buffalo when its horn malfunctioned (in accordance with railroad regulations), and, again due to a work-hours rule, stayed for eight hours until a fresh crew could be deployed.
"We're trying to work with [the railroad]," Buffalo City Administrator Merton Auger said. "We understand [the shipping] business is good, and that's great. But we also need to have some accountability on solving some of the problems.
"There's not much we can do," Auger added. "The railroad is like a sovereign nation."
City officials have expressed open frustration with what they describe as indifference from the railroad. They've posted a page on the city's website — unusual in its strongly worded advocacy — asking citizens to call the railroad to complain about blockages.
"I understand the historical perspective and the deference the railroad receives in the interest of commerce," Police Chief Mitchell Weinzetl said. "At the same time, I think they have some social responsibility to be good partners, that I'm not sure they're exercising."
Those feelings might be about to soften. CP executives met with Buffalo officials Wednesday for an hour and, in addition to acknowledging that the long blockages were "unacceptable," vowed to maintain "direct discussions with the city of Buffalo," said spokesman Ed Greenberg. The railroad will also re-examine both train and staff operations.
"We're taking it very seriously atthe senior level of our company. We're taking action to ensure that similar incidents can be avoided in the future," Greenberg said.
Auger said he was heartened by the meeting, in which railroad officials agreed to improve communications with cities up and down the line beyond Buffalo.
"I think they're very sincere in what they told us," Auger said. "I absolutely believe they'll do all they can to change it."
Washington weighs in
Freight railroads in general took some heat this week from U.S. Sen. Al Franken. In asserting in a hearing that the increase in oil shipments have caused delays in deliveries of other commodities to farmers and other businesses across the region, Franken also acknowledged that long traffic delays at crossings have become a problem.
In Coon Rapids, drivers approaching a double-track Burlington Northern crossing at Hanson Boulevard often watch one train pass only to see another arrive from the other direction, leading to long waits, Police Chief Brad Wise said.
"I've lived in this town a long time, and I've never seen anything like it," Wise said. "Every little town all the way out there [to North Dakota] has got to be in the same boat."
In Rockford, between Minneapolis and Buffalo on the CP line, Ben Sanderson, chief of the volunteer fire department, said he's twice been unable to respond to calls due to blocked tracks. The issue has not been weighed by the City Council, "but it could be if a [fire] truck gets caught," he said.
The blockages in Buffalo haven't had any tragic consequences, even though the railroad separates the hospital and the ambulance service from the older, more densely populated part of town, including downtown and a nursing home.
But nearly everyone with a driver's license in the Wright County city of 16,000 people seems to have a story of getting stuck on the way home with a car full of hungry kids or being late for work or experiencing the sinking feeling of seeing the stop arms come down and knowing the wait could be 10, 15, 20 minutes or more.
Andy Bihl, who delivers sandwiches for the proudly prompt Jimmy John's, says deliveries that ought to take eight or nine minutes sometimes take a half-hour. He said he usually waits for trains to clear intersections, rather than embark on the sometimes-futile scramble to find an open intersection nearby.
"I get paid by the hour," he explained.
Ron Enter, owner of Wright Lumber and Millwork, right at Central Avenue and the train tracks, said that while backups affect "everybody," most Buffalo residents seem to regard it as the price of living in a city where the rumble and horns of freight trains have long been a round-the-clock feature.
CP: Big part of the landscape
The CP, which took control of the old Soo Line about 20 years ago, has a strong presence in Minnesota.
The Twin Cities area is its U.S. headquarters, and it has about 1,500 employees across Minnesota.
It operates 1,200 miles of freight lines in the state, second by a narrow margin only to BNSF. Its tracks run from the Twin Cities to western and northwestern Minnesota, as well as across the southern part of the state.
Thousands of Minnesotans have enjoyed its Holiday Train, which every December stops at cities across Minnesota, Canada and the rest of the United States to raise money and food for food banks.
Greenberg, the CP spokesman, said 16 to 18 trains per day pass through Buffalo, an average that's been about the same for some time.
But he added that officials are aware that clogged crossings have been creating problems in Buffalo.
He said the company has reviewed the long blockages in November and February and intends to "take a closer look" at crew scheduling, to try to avoid other situations in which crews might walk away from parked trains.
He also said the company is looking into why the train in the November blockage wasn't split to allow traffic through.
"We regret the events that occurred, and we want to look into their concerns, and take steps to address them," Greenberg said. "We certainly want to continue to have a positive relationship with Buffalo, because we do value that community."