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Good Question: Why do trains stop on the tracks?

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Video of train recorded at crossing west of Teton | Stock photo

You’re running late for an appointment. As you start the car, you worry the traffic will cause more of a delay. On your way there, you hit every green light. Just when you think you may still arrive on time, you come to a railroad crossing. The railroad crossing gate is blocking traffic from an oncoming train.

The train begins to cross and then stops in the middle of the track with 52 cars in tow. You look behind to see if you can back up and find another route, but you quickly realize there are a line of cars behind you. Now you sit and wait. All hopes of arriving to your appointment on time are completely gone.

After expressing your anger to the invisible person in the car with you and yelling at the train to “HURRY UP,” you wonder why the train is stopping in the middle of the track?

If you’re reading this right now, I’m willing to bet you’ve been in some variation of this situation before. Let’s see if we can answer that for this week’s Good Question.

A Google search of “railroads Idaho Falls, Idaho” led me to Luke Bellamy. He is the commercial manager for the Eastern Idaho Railroad.

Before I tell you what he said, here is some background information about the railroad.

The Eastern Idaho Railroad

“The Eastern Idaho Railroad is one of the largest single short line spinoffs in Union Pacific history,” according to their website.

It encompasses 359 track miles throughout Idaho and has two separate clusters of track. The south central portion runs from Buhl to Minidoka. indicates the southeastern cluster has a 51 mile stretch that runs from Idaho Falls to Ashton.

A connecting line includes a 39-mile stretch running from Orvin to Lincoln and Newdale and another stretch from Lincoln to Ammon, Ucon to Menan, and St. Anthony to Edmonds.

The Eastern Idaho Railroad, according to Bellamy, began as the Oregon Short Line in the late 1800s. Watco purchased it from Union Pacific in 1993.

While the railroad was once a mode of transportation, Bellamy told me it’s primary use today is freight shipments. In Eastern Idaho, they ship mainly agriculture products including wheat, barley and potatoes.

Why do trains stop on the tracks?

File photo |

Knowing the purpose of the railroad sheds light on why trains stop on the track. The reason trains stop, according to Bellamy, is because of a switch adjustment.

“They have to pass the switch and then a carman or a switch man has to hop off and physically throw the switch (Bellamy described this as a lever on the ground) so that it changes the direction of the track. Then they can back up over it and unblock the crossing.”

Backing up once the switch has been pulled is part of the activation process for the switch adjustment. The train has to back up in order to travel in a new direction.

At this point, I wondered whether switch adjustments occur specifically at a railroad crossing or if they can be done at another location along the track?

Bellamy said the location of the switch depends upon the location of the customer.

I reached out to Union Pacific Railroad for a more specific answer. One crossing I deal with frequently is the one on Broadway and Yellowstone in Idaho Falls, next to Museum of Idaho.

I asked UP spokeswoman Kristen South why trains frequently stop here and hold up traffic for 15 minutes at a time.

“You’re seeing that crossing blocked because of activity in our yard,” South said. “As the train comes in, it’s taken apart and sorted for departure. Some freight items are destined for a different location. We take the cars off and rebuild them into new trains so (the freight) continues on to its final destination.”

The yard she referred to is located about a mile to the north near Yellowstone and Lomax. She also indicated switch adjustments are part of the sorting process.

Why does it take so long?

Bellamy says it’s a dangerous procedure when you’re dealing with 286,000 pound rail cars. Safety is the utmost priority, which is why it takes so long.

“You have to check certain items on the track to make sure those are clear and that you’re not going to put anyone or anything in harm’s way.”

Following the procedure takes about 10-15 minutes, he says. But it didn’t always take that long. Fifteen or 20 years ago, Bellamy says there wasn’t as big a focus on safety.

“Today, safety is the most important aspect, so we just want to make sure we’re doing everything correctly.”

For those impacted by wait times at the Broadway and Yellowstone crossing, South recommended using 17th street or D street, which crosses underneath the overpass one block to the north.

How common are train-vehicle accidents in Idaho?

Since December 2017, has reported three accidents involving trains and other vehicles. That got me wondering how many train-vehicle collisions, on average, happen in Idaho every year?

I reached out to Idaho Transportation Department. According to ITD data, there were 17 train crashes throughout the entire state in 2016. Five of those resulted in injuries.

Idaho Transportation Dept.

For 2015, there were 14 crashes. One resulted in an injury and three resulted in deaths. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of train crashes per year in Idaho, on average, was 13.6.

This data was collected from reports made to Law Enforcement across the state.

I also learned train crashes are rare in Idaho and usually occur in rural areas.

The reason crashes occur in rural areas, according to ITD, is because rural railroad crossings typically do not have crossing arms or flashing lights to indicate an approaching train.

“You would think that it would be easy to spot a train coming, but sometimes it’s tough,” Bellamy said. “Be safe on railroad tracks. Don’t go play on them, shoot pop cans or hike along the tracks because trains can pop up out of nowhere.”

Bellamy also recommends a little common sense–stop at every railroad crossing and look both ways twice before you cross.

The next time you find yourself waiting at a railroad crossing, send a little thanks my way for helping you understand why you have to sit there for 15 minutes.

You’re welcome.

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