Sunday, October 24, 2010

End of the story -- maybe.

(See the prior two posts for the first emails.)

One week later . . .


A quick follow-up: Yesterday afternoon I approached Bloomington from the south (commuting home this time) to see the gates coming down. A train slowly moved across the highway, again from east to west, and stopped after only about a dozen railcars had passed the highway. I had a strong sense of déjà-vu.

However, THIS time the train was only stopped for 3-4 minutes before it began backing up (ONE song on the radio). It cleared the intersection promptly and traffic moved on.

The contrast was stark. This was to me the way it ought to happen (IF the railroad has no choice but to switch cars across a highway intersection, a practice I would hope UP would try to avoid if it could). Now granted, this was almost certainly a MUCH shorter train. But the length of time elapsed while it was stopped also seemed appropriate and prudent.

I don’t intend to re-open a dialogue that I think is completed — just to let you know that RR crossing delays of moderate duration are expected and at worst usually only a source of mild irritation. Also there was MUCH less traffic at 3:45 pm than during the morning commute.

Thanks again for “listening.”

John Earle

Mr. Earle,

The size of the train absolutely plays a role, as do the different crews. Our employees must have a detailed "job briefing" on the moves to be made to ensure a safe operation. When you are dealing with a smaller train or cut of cars, it reduces the complexity of the moves and thus the job briefing required (how many tracks will the cars go into, how many switches will be lined, how long will the move take, etc.). I hope this helps...

Ivan Jaime


I guess.

I don't plan to write him again.

I DID copy those phone numbers he provided (including his direct line!) into my cell phone contacts.

I'm disappointed that he never addressed my question about why the train couldn't move completely through (past) the intersection and THEN stop for 12 minutes to conduct their briefing, allowing road traffic to proceed.

Or my seemingly obvious but unwritten question: Why wait until the train is stopped across a highway and blocking all morning commute and school traffic, and THEN conduct your briefing? Why not stop the train short of the intersection, brief everybody, then pull forward, stop, and immediately reverse?

Unfortunately the answer is probably this: The railroad's priorities have nothing to do with traffic flow, and everything to do with moving their freight safely. This is not wrong, per se, but it seems to me that there are ways to accomplish their objectives while "operations managers try to handle their business with as limited an impact on the community as possible."

If anyone reading this knows someone who works for a railroad and would like to correct my misconceptions, please feel free to weigh in. Absent that, I'm left with the impression that Union Pacific really doesn't care as much about their "impact on the community" as they would like us to believe.

Am I being unfair?

Friday, October 22, 2010

The rest of the exchange

(See the prior post for the lead-in letter.)

Hello Mr. Earle,

First, let me apologize for your experience last Thursday and for your thoughtful email below. I will look into the matter and ask my counterpart in Houston to contact you soon to discuss the issue further. I will not attempt to answer each of your questions, until we learn exactly what happened that day. In short, there are many scenarios which may have played out. It does in fact take a decent amount of time to stop a train, line a switch, and get it moving again. Moreover, only Signal employees or police officers may lift a gate to allow vehicular traffic to proceed.

We will get back with you soon. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance in the mean time. Thank you.

Ivan Jaime

Mr. Jaime,

Thanks for the prompt response.

I have wondered in the past if it was legal for railroad employees to hold up the gates, although perhaps they were “Signal” employees. It seems to me that the potential liability could be huge if a mistake were made. Next time gates appear stuck perhaps motorists should call the closest law enforcement office. But in this case that would have been the Victoria County Sheriff’s office, at least 20 minutes away and not a good solution.

I suppose my only remaining question involves the need to move so much of a train so slowly across a highway intersection and then, after a 12-minute stoppage, back it up even more slowly until it clears. The only answer that presents itself to me is, assuming a switch was being lined up, that the location of the switch was so close to the intersection that the train had to proceed that far to clear the switch. If that is the case, likely relocating the switch is not feasible and there is no good solution for this occasional problem. Or, just a thought here, perhaps during prime commuting time the entire train could be moved through the intersection and then stopped for 12 minutes while traffic flowed. Then the train could back up across the intersection and through the lined-up switch and again clear the intersection. Maybe? But perhaps there was other rail traffic invisible to me that prevented this solution as well.

And it’s also likely that UP doesn’t have the option of scheduling these road closures at some time other than prime commute time. If it did, the middle of the night would seem ideal. But obviously you can’t schedule all your switching activities at night. So I suppose the situation is not the result of inattention or lack of caring by UP at all.

It really isn’t necessary to provide me with a more detailed explanation of the events of that day. I feel better for having vented to you.

Thanks again for listening/reading.

John Earle

Mr. Earle,

It is interesting that you nailed pretty much what happened. After digging a bit deeper, it appears that there was a long train moving from Houston to the border that had to "set-out" half of its rail cars at the Bloomington Yard. After moving past the switch, the crew had to line the switch and have a proper job briefing of the move to be made. They then made the move back into the yard, at which time the gates got stuck. We don't expect this to happen very frequently, and rest assured that our operations managers try to handle their business with as limited an impact on the community as possible.

I'd like to leave you with a few telephone numbers just in case. You may feel free to dial (800) 848.8715 to report malfunctioning gate signals, blocked crossings, or any other situation that you may encounter with the railroad. If you have an immediate emergency, you may instead dial (888) 877.7267, which will connect you to our emergency command center. Finally, you can always call me if you need to vent or if you have any general questions. My contact information is below.

Again, thank you for your patience and understanding. Have a great week.

Ivan Jaime

You'll notice he didn't address a few of my suggestions. There was a bit more follow up from this week. I'll share that tomorrow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

When I think it might help . . .

I write letters (or emails). Here's a recent exchange that ought to be self-explanatory. Mr. Jaime is a public relations official with Union Pacific Railroad.

Mr. Jaime,

I found your contact information on a “UP in Texas” web site. I’ll try to make this concise.

In Bloomington (Victoria County), TX, an active (busy) UP line crosses Highway 185, a likewise busy commuting route on early morning and early evening weekdays—a route I commute on. I’d like to describe my experience Tuesday morning 10/13. Unfortunately it wasn’t as rare as I would wish.

Then I’d like to ask a few questions.

I drove into Bloomington from Victoria, and pulled to a stop at the end of a 4-block-long line of traffic stopped for the railroad crossing. I could see the crossing arms down and lights flashing, and made out a dim outline of tank cars proceeding slowly from east to west. Time: 6:21 AM in pre-dawn darkness.

This happens at least once every week or two, so . . . no big deal. I allow an extra 15-20 minutes (from experience) to avoid being late for work.

The train slowed, and at 6:25 it stopped completely, blocking the road.

Now count off 12 minutes. Visualize the line of commuters behind me growing longer and longer. Horns begin to blow. Cars begin to bail out left and right onto side streets seeking an open route around the stopped train. Frustration mounts as no one is sure if the train will move again, much less when.

At 6:37 the railcars begin inching the other direction (from west to east). The train is backing up! Well, at least it was moving. For 6 minutes the tank cars crept across the road. It was now light enough to see them clearly. Eventually, the locomotives also passed. Time was now 6:43 AM.

Trucks and cars began to inch forward in anticipation of the gates going up. Then all stopped. The gates stayed down. Minutes passed. MORE minutes passed!

As you can imagine, cars began driving around the stuck crossing arms. I saw a number of near-miss collisions as other commuters, desperate to get to their jobs, broke the law. Exacerbating the problem were school busses and tank trucks that would not cross the tracks while the lights flashed (as they shouldn’t, but of course, neither should the rest of us!)

When my turn came, I too broke the law and crossed the tracks. Time: 6:51 AM. No train was in sight other than the one that had blocked the road for so long; it was about a half-mile away. In the now-clear daylight I could see no UP employees nearby and wondered if anyone knew the gates were stuck. I called the number for Union Pacific, Bloomington. A man answered, “Union Pacific.” I said (in a not very kind tone, I’ll admit), “Do you guys know your crossing gates are stuck down?”

He replied calmly, “Yeah. It’s been turned in and we’re waiting for responders.” I disconnected before I said something ugly. His tone said clearly to me, “. . .and I don’t care!”

Thirty minutes doesn’t sound long, but it seemed an eternity. Yes, I was late for work.

That tale describes my frustration. Now that I’ve cooled off I’d like to ask a few questions. I debated putting these in a letter to the editor of the Victoria paper, but decided the more mature course would be to ask you.

First, to satisfy my curiosity (since it happens with some regularity), what is going on when 60 railcars of a train cross an intersection, the train stops, and nothing moves for over 10 minutes? Does it take that long to throw a switch so the train can back up and add or remove cars? Is there a crew change, and if so, does it take that long? With miles of switchyard just east of Bloomington, is it really necessary to block this intersection while switching cars?

I admit, I’m ignorant of the workings of your business. Likely valid reasons exist for these practices. Unfortunately, most members of the general commuting public are also ignorant and, like me, assume in their ignorance that the railroad doesn’t care if traffic and lives are disrupted, and simply blocks intersections needlessly because it can.

Next question: Was that employee all alone when I called? I’ve seen railroad employees in the past (at Bloomington) who would hold open a crossing gate arm when no train was present or would be moving for a while, to allow highway traffic to proceed across the tracks. If Mr. “we’re waiting for responders” had another employee or two around, he could have done wonders for UP’s public image by having one or two of those employees visibly help traffic move.

I understand the inherent danger of proximity to moving objects weighing a quarter of a million pounds each, and thus the need to be very careful and deliberate. Still, in my ignorance of railroad practices, policies and procedures, it just doesn’t seem like what I witnessed yesterday should happen.

Please help me to understand.

John Earle

(For my next post, I'll publish his response. And then the rest of the correspondence.)