Buffalo getting impatient with old No. 9 (and 10, and 11 ...)

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2014 - 6:22 PM

“Not much we can do,” official said about N.D. oil and freight run-up.

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A Canadian Pacific train rolled through the intersection of Highway 55 and Central Avenue in Buffalo, Minn.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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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.

‘Sovereign nation’

“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.”

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