KAKE NEWS INVESTIGATES: Trouble on the Tracks

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Some Wichita drivers say scenes of stalled trains, not even moving an inch, have become way too familiar lately. Some have even called police about them.

“I asked ‘Can a railroad block traffic for more than ten minutes?’” said George Heunergardt, who recalled a recent phone call with authorities while he was stopped behind train tracks. “They told me ‘Yes, they can.’”

Others say it’s always been a problem that’s only gotten worse recently, and are blaming a decision by the Court of Appeals.

“Seems like in the last couple of months it’s gotten worse. It appears the railroads are taking an attitude of ‘We can, so we will’ and pretty much ignoring their impact on the community.,” said Richard Harris.

But firefighters and paramedics have noticed the problem, too.

“Some of the crews have reported lately that there seem to be more and more issues,” said Stuart Bevis, Wichita Fire Marshall.

In an investigation last August, KAKE News discovered firefighters had been blocked from responding to at least two calls. Seven fire stations are either next to, or just blocks from, a railroad crossing in the city of Wichita.

“Industrial accidents do happen,” Harris said. “It can be a matter of life and death if the ambulances can’t get there in time.”

Kansas lawmakers tried to pass regulations that would have limited the time a train could stop and block an intersection. But a case in Chase County led to the state law being repealed.

The statute barred a train from sitting on tracks for longer than ten minutes. But BNSF railway challenged the statute, citing federal law that had no limit.

An attorney for the railway said in court that the company couldn’t be subjected to state law because it does interstate commerce. The company also repeatedly denied claims of extended periods blocking traffic. It would also have fined rail companies that violated the statute.

The court sided with BNSF.

“We thought we had a decent case,” Attorney General Derek Schmidt said. “That the appropriate test would have allowed the state to operate.”

Now, it would literally take an act of Congress to change.

“The ball is ultimately in Congress’ court,” Schmidt said. He added that, in his experience and observations, the railways had been cooperative.

At least one driver disagrees.

“Sometimes they’ll answer but more often than not they simply ignore you,” Harris said.

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