Wisconsin News

Railroad maintenance concern grows as train traffic picks up

LA CROSSE, WI - Trains have been rolling through La Crosse for years, but some now worry they could pose a risk to the community.

The railroad industry was at its peak in 2006. It took a hit during the recession but traffic is picking up again.

While that's good news for the economy, one local couple who lives next to the track worries the extra traffic means extra risk of a derailment.

"Used to be just a fact of life the trains going by," said La Crosse resident Bob Spacek.

The rumble of trains rolling down the tracks is something Spacek hears many times a day.


"There's 66 trains going past," said Spacek.

But in June, a sound that usually goes unnoticed, caught his attention.

"We could actually just hear the difference as the trains went across here; the wheels were screeching because they were left hanging in midair," said Spacek.

A quick walk across the street to check out the track, and Spacek's fears were confirmed.

"This area here you can see the mud washed up on the tracks in the area. They replaced some of the track that was totally disintegrated from water being in there," said Spacek.

It took multiple phone calls to BNSF Railway before the problem was fixed.

Spacek worries there are many other spots like that one that maintenance crews just can't keep up with.

"I understand that, since in the last year now they've eliminated eight maintenance positions between Stoddard and Minneapolis," said Spacek.

A railroad maintenance worker who didn't want to be identified said crews are being overworked and he's concerned it's just a matter of time before a problem is missed and a train derails.

But BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said they haven't made any cuts to their workforce, they've only reassigned positions.

She said track safety is the No. 1 priority for the railroad.

"BNSF has a very rigorous track-inspection program. In fact, we inspect our tracks more frequently than what's required by the Federal Railroad Administration," said McBeth. "We invest heavily in our maintenance programs in the state of Wisconsin. Over the past three years, BNSF has invested more than $80 million."

They're all measures Spacek hopes will be enough to avoid a major catastrophe.

"They're carrying oil and ethanol and just entire trains of ethanol go past us. That's the reason we're concerned about the tracks, because if that explodes, we have nowhere to go," said Spacek.

Spacek said this is not the first time he's had to call about a problem with the track.

A few years ago, he had to call for a weld that had broken apart.

BNSF will look to invest more than $15 million in railroad maintenance and expansion efforts in Wisconsin this year.

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