For decades, residents in five northern Ramsey County communities, drawn to nearby lakes, nice parks and quiet streets, have coexisted mostly in harmony with the Canadian Pacific Railway line running through on its way to and from St. Paul.
Beginning last spring, however, that changed.
Residents say trains — some with more than 100 cars — are now coming through, announcing their approach with blaring horns day and night, turning a mere nuisance into a serious health and safety threat. In Shoreview, in an area called Cardigan Junction where two east/west and north/south rail lines converge, switching operations were ramped up significantly this summer, and rail cars booming together literally rattle the walls of nearby homes. Fumes from idling diesel engines drive families from their back yards. Trains stall at crossings for 20 to 30 minutes.
“It’s more than just the noise,” said Marcia Figus, who lives in the Cardigan Junction neighborhood about 500 feet from the Canadian Pacific tracks. “And it’s 24/7. … You just can’t sleep. In 40 years of living here, it’s never been like this.”
Over the summer, Figus tried sleeping in different rooms of her house to escape the noise, including in a lawn chair in her basement and in a bathtub. She’s had to put cushions in her windows and between her patio doors to keep them from rattling.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” added Jan Bunde, who lives down the block from Figus. Other neighbors have children who have struggled with sleep and breathing problems from the fumes. “Some days, it is just unbelievable how it permeates the air,” she said. “Using our yard has become almost nonexistent.”
Figus, a retired chemistry teacher, is also concerned about fueling operations going on at the junction, oil and other filth being cleaned off cars and the increased number of rail cars passing through that carry flammable substances like petroleum, chlorine, ammonia and benzene.
“This is an accident waiting to happen,” Figus said.
Cities, railroad respond
Besides Shoreview, residents in the cities of Little Canada, Vadnais Heights, Roseville and Arden Hills over the past few months have been complaining for the past several months about disruption from trains, said Blake Huffman, the Ramsey County commissioner who represents the area.
Residents and leaders from those cities, along with representatives from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s office, have had two private meetings with Canadian Pacific Railway to discuss the concerns, including one Thursday night. The hope is that the discussions will lead to an equitable resolution.
The problem at Cardigan Junction, Huffman said, is that “the yard is now being used in a way that is not suitable to the neighborhood.”
“When you’re dealing with something like this, it’s bad — but if you know it’s going to stop next week, you can kind of put up with it,” he said. “Right now, there’s no end in sight.”
Ed Greenberg, Canadian Pacific Railway’s Minneapolis-based spokesman, said the company is taking the issues seriously. Officials who were part of the meetings will review the railroad’s operations in the area to see where any changes can be made as soon as possible.
“Our company is committed to working with them,” he said, but acknowledged the railroad also has an obligation to its customers. “It’s a balance, and we really respect the feedback that we’ve received.”
Train traffic has been increasing this year, he said, in response to increased demand. An average of four to eight trains are now running through the area each day.
Huffman said the increased traffic reflects three factors: an improving economy, a busy grain shipping season and the oil boom in western North Dakota, prompting more shipments of oil to the east and frac sand to the west.
Whatever the reason, residents are banding together to take action.
In response to complaints, including a petition drive led by Figus and Bunde, the Shoreview City Council last month approved spending $12,000 for a study to see whether “quiet zones” could be established at one or more of the crossings in the city. That includes Cardigan Junction, a triangular area of land bound on the east by Vadnais Lake, on the west by Grass Lake and on the south by Interstate 694 at Rice Street.
This week, the City Council in Little Canada will consider a similar plan at a cost of $10,000, which City Administrator Joel Hanson expects will be approved.
There are five Canadian Pacific railroad crossings in a span of about 2 miles within the city, Hanson said. That means, because of federal rules, trains coming through essentially have to sound their horns during their whole run through town. When there was only about one train a day running through, it wasn’t really an issue, he said. But now traffic has increased, including in the wee hours of the morning, and it’s getting intolerable.
“We started getting calls back in May. … I’ve been here a long time, and this issue by far has generated the most complaints I have ever seen since I’ve been here,” he said. “We get about three to five calls a day,” sometimes from residents living a mile from the tracks.
“Quiet zones” are sections of track, typically half a mile long, where trains do not have to sound their horns at crossings. But because that mandated safety measure is removed, the crossings have to be improved with lights, crossing gates and other features to keep vehicles from crossing. Those features are costly — about $200,000 to $250,000 per crossing, Hanson said.
For a city like Little Canada, with a general-fund budget of about $3 million, that’s a tough spending decision, he said, and would mean taking money from other city services.
Striking a balance
Quiet zones won’t address all the concerns. And cities hold virtually no sway over regulating railroads.
Changes at Canadian Pacific also could be at play. According to reports in the Canadian business press, the railway’s new hard-charging CEO, E. Hunter Harrison, has pushed to close rail yards and run longer trains to cut costs in an effort to turn around the company. Critics say the company’s safety record also has taken a hit as a result.
In the meantime, residents like Figus and Bunde wait and worry about their health, safety, property values and future.
“I would not want to think about having to leave here,” said Bunde, and she frets most about her younger neighbors with children. “I can’t see them wanting to stay here if this continues.”