Rolling through town

Railroad lines stay busy on Southeast Iowa tracks

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train passes through Fairfield at sunset. (Photo courtesy of Werner Elmker)
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train passes through Fairfield at sunset. (Photo courtesy of Werner Elmker)

In the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, said, “You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.”

In Southeast Iowa, anchor chains and plane motors are not the most common sounds, but train whistles are a part of everyday life.

Two railroad lines run through Southeast Iowa, an east-west line that runs through Fairfield and Mt. Pleasant owned by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and a north-south line that connects Ottumwa and Davenport and runs through Washington owned by Canadian Pacific Railroad (CP).

Canadian Pacific does not keep a breakdown of rail traffic in specific areas, according to CP media relations manager Andy Cummings.

Courtney Wallace, BNSF spokesperson, said that about 20-25 trains a day run its lines in Southeast Iowa, which includes a line that runs through Fort Madison in Lee County.

“Freight traffic volumes ebb and flow depending on customer needs, market demands, weather and other factors,” Wallace said.

Freight of all kinds moves throughout Southeast Iowa.

“Annually, BNSF moves more than 122,000 carloads of corn, soybeans, wheat and other agricultural products from Iowa to facilities around the country for domestic use and to ports for export abroad,” Wallace said. “We are helping Iowa farmers expand their markets by providing a vital transportation link for the state’s ethanol industry.”

The pandemic has impacted the railroad industry just as it has other businesses.

“Most of the segments have been negatively impacted, but there have been some segments that have actually seen volumes rise during the pandemic,” Wallace said. “For example, we have seen a strong recovery in intermodal volumes as an increase in e-commerce sales drives demand for parcel and truckload intermodal shipments on our network.

“As cities and states began reopening, intermodal demand was further supported by recovering brick-and-mortar retailers.”

Intermodal refers to the transport of containers that can be transferred between rail cars, trucks and even ships.

Wallace said that current volumes at some of their intermodal facilities are as much as 20 percent higher than they were at this time last year.

“Overall, 2020 was a challenging year but we are encouraged by the increase in economic activity, and the volume we are seeing on the railroad,” Wallace said. “We are looking forward to a continued recovery and are positioned to help our customers grow.”

While rail lines predominantly carry freight, passenger trains also pass through Southeast Iowa.

Two Amtrak routes run along BNSF rails in the area.

The California Zephyr runs between Chicago and the San Francisco area and has stop in Mt. Pleasant and Burlington.

The Southwest Chief runs between Chicago and Los Angeles and stops in Fort Madison.

Wallace said that it is a common practice for BNSF.

“We coordinate directly with Amtrak and other passenger trains that may use our network,” Wallace said. “For example, Sound Transit in Seattle and Metra in Chicago run commuter service on our tracks.”

Coordinating rail traffic is a massive undertaking.

BNSF, which has 32,500 miles of track in the United States, runs its main dispatching center in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Like air traffic controllers work with flight crews, dispatchers use state-of-the-art technologies to communicate with train crews and others to control and direct the safe movement of trains,” Wallace said. “The (network operations center) boasts an operating floor the size of a football field and the largest single-span projector ever manufactured with displays of weather and trains on the system.

“This vast area and cutting-edge technology allow the 100-plus dispatchers and support staff during each of the three shifts to efficiently perform their duties.”

Back on the subject of train whistles, federal law requires a train crew, when approaching a road crossing, sound the horn at all public crossings for the protection and safety of motorists and pedestrians, regardless of whether crossings with gates and lights are present.

Train crews may sound their horns when there is a vehicle, person or animal on or near the track and the crew determines it is appropriate to provide warning.

Crews also may sound their train horn when there are track or construction workers within 25 feet of a live track, or when gates and lights at the crossing are not functioning properly.

“The proscribed sequence is two long sounds, a short, followed by another long,” Wallace explained. “A train crew can be fined by the (Federal Railroad Administration) for not sounding the horn enough.

“BNSF management and the FRA spot check train crews for compliance with the horn rule without the train crews’ knowledge.”

One exception, though, are designated “quiet zones.”

Several years ago, the city of Fairfield went through the process of being designated a quiet zone.

Cities that want the designation are required to invest in significant safety upgrades at railroad crossings.

These include high tech safety devices at crossing and concrete medians that make it so cars cannot pull out and drive around safety bars when they are down.

Train crews may still sound their horn, though, if they see a vehicle or person on or near the tracks.