Arkansas lawmakers consider limiting train lengths to allow better rural access for first resonders
Getting stuck at a railroad crossing while a train passes or blocks a crossing is an inconvenience for most. For first responders, it can be life or death.
"If you are talking about a medical emergency, every second counts," Matthew Stallings of the Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association told the Arkansas House Public Transportation Committee. "If you are talking about about a structure fire, your fire is doubling in size every minute."
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, introduced a bill in 2021 for an interim study on the safety of Arkansas' train crossings. It's a problem that is easier to address in the state's larger cities, Stallings said. Sometimes another unit can be dispatched to take an alternate route if the other is waiting on a train to pass.
"But if you're talking about say a rural area, there may not be another route," Stallings said.
Longer trains move slower and are at greater risk for mechanical failure, according to an interim study presented to the committee. Union Pacific operates nearly half of the 2,662 miles of railroad in Arkansas, according to the presentation. UP knows where its trouble spots are, and they address them, said Drew Tessier, senior director of public affairs for the railroad company, told the committee.
An issue with a crossing in Hensley is being addressed and changes should be completed by March of 2023, Tessier said.
Flowers admits that every blocked crossing cannot be eliminated. But she thinks something can be done.
"We don't want to wait until there is an explosion," Flowers said. "We have to figure out how do we address these concerns from convenience to safety threats."
But anything the state does could face challenges. Other states have tried but it is an issue that should be addressed by the Federal Railroad Administration, said Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark. Any state legislation would be pointless, he said.
"There's nothing being done in any states to change the laws because the federal government has the say over the length of trains," Berry said. "They're not going to stop that train in Oklahoma and cut it in half to allow the train to go through the state of Arkansas. That's just not going to happen."