No end in sight: County rejects BNSF railroad’s response to complaints

SANBORN, N.D. — “Eight minutes, which ain’t bad,” business owner Terry Didier said as he clicked off the timer on the TV in the lobby of Didier’s Ag Center located on Main Avenue in Sanborn.

“Now eight minutes might be the difference between life or death for a rescue team.”

For quite some time Didier has been chronicling the time that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad company’s trains have been blocking both roads that exit the city over the railroad tracks, which he can see from his business. So far the longest time he’s recorded is two hours and eight minutes, but says there may have been longer times because he only records them during his business hours or when he’s stuck waiting for a train himself.

The concerns and complaints over the trains have been in the air for years, the biggest being how blocking off access to and from the city keeps ambulances, fire engines and other emergency service from coming to the aid of Sanborn residents.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Didier said. “Somebody is going to die, and then they’ll do something.”

BNSF sent a letter to Didier, as well as the Barnes County Commission, the Barnes County Sheriff’s Office, the Potter Township Board and the Sanborn City Council after representatives from the company met with the the county commission on Feb. 21 to discuss the issues in Sanborn. BNSF had originally rejected meeting with the commission but eventually conceded.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the county commission said the company’s response to the the problems in Sanborn is unacceptable.

“Personally, I can’t accept their reply,” Commissioner John Froelich said.

At the February meeting, members of the standing-room only audience in the Commission Chambers, and commissioners themselves, said the best way to solve the problems in Sanborn would be to lengthen the siding track that trains wait on as they pass or meet each other.

BNSF’s Director of Public Affairs, Amy McBeth, wrote in the BNSF official response that the company is trying to eliminate two-on-one meets in Sanborn and instituted rolling stops so that trains can pass each other while moving.

As far as lengthening the track, McBeth wrote “According to our Engineering Department, such a project is not currently in BNSF’s Capital Plan, nor is it expected to be included in the coming years.”

Thursday, McBeth said, “Following our meeting with the commissioners we went to our engineering department to see if it was part of the capital plan and what it would take to extend that siding. Given what it would require, acquiring real estate and reconfiguring signals, track panels and other costs, it would be cost prohibitive to extend that siding.”

McBeth said Sanborn is not the only city located on a BNSF railroad line that has had these problems. She added that preliminary estimates to lengthen the track would be around $2 million, but did not have a solid number as to the actual price.

“Unless you have a number, what are you talking about?” Froelich said. What we need from them is a reply saying ‘it will cost this much money to do this project.’ Then we can sit here and say ‘well, maybe there can be something done about this.’ But until we know what the number is, they can tell us anything.”

Difficult detour
The city of Sanborn lies just off the intersection of State Highway 1 and County Road 22. There are currently only four ways in and out of town: Two to the south which cross the BNSF tracks, one a mile to the west which also crosses tracks to the south, and over a nine-mile detour north of town on a gravel township road, then west, north again, and eventually east on 29th Street Southeast in Potter Township to State Highway 1. On Thursday the township road was already showing abuse from truck traffic as the planting season gets underway.

A fifth exit to the east of the city has been closed due to flooding and subsequent deterioration. Barnes County Superintendent Kerry Johnson said Wednesday there are federal funds available to fix the road, but currently it is too deteriorated to work with.

“It had been underwater, and then when they got that outlet in there (on Sanborn Lake), it came out of the water somewhat, but it’s still soft and needs some repair,” said Johnson.

“That’s a township problem. They do have FEMA money to repair that road. I think it’s out of the water now; it’s just probably not in good shape because it had been underwater for so long.”

Back in Sanborn, Didier adds to his log everyday, writing down the date, time, engine number and duration the crossings are closed. North Dakota Century Code states that trains can only block the roads for 10 minutes at a time, and when they do, Didier calls the Barnes County Sheriff’s Office.

“The Sheriff’s Department has been really good, they come out when I call, but it’s really hard to catch them because they’re sneaky. They know we’re watching,” Didier said.

Barnes County Sheriff Randy McClafin said before deputies can cite an engineer for blocking traffic, they have to be observed doing so for 10 minutes.

“Therein lies the problem,” McClafin said, because trains can get moving again before a deputy arrives for the 10-minute countdown.

The last engineer cited for blocking or obstructing traffic with a train was Scott Bender of Fargo on Nov. 11. He received a $500 fine.

Not good, but getting better
Sanborn Alderperson Nikki Grebel said the city was not pleased with BNSF’s response to their pleas either.

“When we read the letter, we basically felt as though they brushed it off as though it is no big deal... It’s not enough for us,” she said.

Citizens of Sanborn also complained about engineers laying on the horn all the way through town at all hours of the night, and Didier has documented that trains have pulled over to meet another train, blocked traffic and then proceeded on their way when no other train was coming.

“This one, back in November, stopped for 47 minutes and didn’t even meet another train, just pulled out here and stopped,” he said. “They’re blocking us in or out for no reason at all.”

Despite trains continuing to block traffic, Didier said he’s observed the improving, but there is still work to be done.

“They have been better, I will say that, but they are not acceptable yet. They’re better from where they were, they’re a lot better from where they were, but it’s still not acceptable. They’re breaking the law,” he said.

At the end of the of the commission’s discussion on Tuesday, Commissioner Rodger Berntson asked McClafin what the penalty would be for a motorist whose vehicle became disabled on the tracks, delaying train traffic for an hour or two.

“That would be up to the State’s Attorney if there would be a penalty at all,” said McClafin.

To which Commissioner Cindy Schwehr said, “I’m not even going to say anything because we’ll just get into trouble.”