Fishers, rail companies at odds over rail trespassing

Current law makes it illegal to cross tracks except at public intersections

A new bill being proposed by a local representative is trying to make crossing railroad tracks to public land legal again.

For over 150 years, directly crossing a rail track into public land was legal in Wisconsin.

But a bill 2005, and enforced specifically over the last year, made crossing those tracks illegal, and rail companies have began to issue verbal warnings to fishers who have crossed over to the Mississippi River.

Owner of Captain Hooks Bait and Tackle Mark Clements sees a variety of people pass through his store in Genoa.

“This is probably 95 percent fishermen that come in here looking for bait, tackle, places to go, places to ice fish, places to take their boat,” said Clements.

For years, fishers and other wildlife enthusiasts have crossed rail tracks to get to the Mississippi.

“In the spring and fall, you can have a few hundred in a day come through the doors,” said Clements.

But in the last year, rail companies have stepped up their efforts to enforce a law that makes crossing the tracks illegal except at public intersections.

“Nobody knew about it, nobody had heard about it until about a year ago, and a year ago a detective stopped in here at the shop, and said, ‘Guess what? You can’t cross the tracks anymore.’ And that’s when it started,” said Clements.

Rail company BNSF said the law is about public safety.

“We have been working for the past year on educating the public in our corridor about that, and really to talk about the need to improve safety,” said Amy McBeth, spokesperson for BNSF. “The way to do that is to cross at these designated railroad crossings.”

Currently there are only a handful of crossings down the Mississippi, which Clements said makes reaching popular fishing sites more difficult.

“Word of mouth travels very fast in this industry, and so you get a lot of phone calls saying, ‘Oh we don’t have access to the river, well we’re just not going to come up there,'” said Clements.

Rep. Lee Nerison recently introduced a bill reverting back to the previous requirements, allowing people to walk directly over a railroad track to public land. It’s a plan BNSF opposes.

“It’s still illegal to walk on the tracks, loiter, or just be on the tracks,” said Nerison. “All it is (doing is) putting it back to go straight across.”

Clements said while there is a public crossing in Genoa, he’s still unsure of his future if the current law continues.

“It’s huge,” said Clements. “If you don’t have access to the river, why have a business?”

The Federal Railroad Administration reports there were nine deaths in Wisconsin involving trespassing on railways in 2015.

Critics of the current law point out that some of those numbers also include trespassers who laid down on the tracks, suicides, as well as those driving across tracks with a vehicle.

The bill recently passed in the state Assembly and now heads to the Senate. If it passes there, it will head to the governor’s desk for his signature.