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Senate bill targets blocked railroad crossings

Senate bill targets blocked railroad crossings

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Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., has joined with three other senators to introduce legislation in the U.S. Senate to address instances of blocked railroad crossings.

“There are more than 200,000 highway-railroad crossings across this country,” Fischer said. “When trains block these crossings, it can cause major inconveniences and even delay first responders. My legislation would ensure the collection of data on blocked crossings to help Congress develop policies that will make America’s roads safer and more convenient.”

Blocked crossings are a public safety issue that have been a continued problem in central Nebraska during the years. Nebraska law says that nonmoving freight trains are not to block highway crossings for more than 10 minutes, but it’s up to local law enforcement to enforce that law and the railroads haven’t seen the issue as something worth addressing.

This year the Nebraska Public Service Commission followed through on numerous complaints from the Grand Island area about crossings blocked by Nebraska Central Railroad, Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains. At a Feb. 5 hearing, area residents had the opportunity to testify about the problems they have witnessed.

There was testimony about emergency responders having to drive around blocked intersections, taking longer to get to the location where they were needed. There was testimony about schoolchildren having to go under train cars to get to school or home. There was testimony of homeowners having to listen to crossing warning bells continuously while an intersection was blocked.

As a result of the PSC involvement, both NCR and BNSF have taken actions to address the problems at specific crossings and the PSC has dismissed the complaints. That is the best resolution to a problem — the parties involved worked together to come up with solutions and implemented the needed changes.

But problems continue to arise at other crossings and will in the future.

So Fischer’s bill is needed and the Senate should act quickly to pass it.

In December 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration created a Blocked Crossing Incident Reporter portal. It is an online resource for the public and law enforcement to report blocked grade crossings to the agency. Fischer’s bill would authorize the FRA’s blocked crossing portal as a three-year pilot program, ensuring data collection continues. The FRA would be required to analyze submissions to the portal and provide an analysis to Congress. In this way, Congress members will be better able to understand the scope and severity of blocked crossings and develop targeted, effective policy to address them.

The bill also requires the Federal Highway Administration to evaluate the requirements of the Section 130 railway-highway grade crossing program to identify any additional flexibilities in the program that could support states’ efforts to make grade crossings safer.

The Nebraska Legislature has discussed problems with blocked crossings many times during the years, but has failed to take action that forced the railroads to resolve the issues. It is hoped that this Senate bill will create an effective method for people to report blocked crossings and for Congress to solve those problems.

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