Road closures have county officials feeling sidetracked

By Lew K. Cohn

Managing Editor

The Highlander

Continued closures of Burnet County highways and roads due to railway activity the past several days has left Burnet County officials feeling “sidetracked.”

It has even prompted Burnet County Judge James Oakley to ask Austin Western Railroad officials for a sitdown at the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, July 24, to see what can be done to get the two sides back on the right track.

Meanwhile, Austin Western Railroad officials on Thursday apologized for the delays motorists and first responders experienced and explained what caused them.

“That particular line is a rail line that holds storage cars for the railroad and we had an order to release several cars on line,” said John Anderson, general manager for AWRR, which operates 181 miles of track from Llano to Giddings as well as the 6.4 mile branch extending from Fairland to Marble Falls. “When our crews went out to pick up the cars that were released, several were scattered in the middle of all of the cars. That created tremendous work for our crews to pull cars out of way, since this is a single main-line track.

“We have never had an issue like this before. It is an anomaly and not the norm, and I can assure you it will never happen again. We want to apologize for any delays out there people may have experienced.”

“These unplanned extended closures due to rail activity that is not the result of an emergency are simply not acceptable,” Oakley said in an email to another AWRR official.

Oakley said the closures are affecting the ability of first responders, especially emergency medical services, to answer calls to patients whose homes are on roads blocked by rail cars on the AWRR track.

He said commissioners will discuss the closures at their regular meeting on July 24 and asked AWRR representatives to attend the meeting.

“I look forward to hearing back from representatives of the rail operators and having them provide us insight as to why they did what they did and what measures they will take to make sure it will not happen again,” Oakley said Thursday morning.

Anderson said the rule of thumb for picking up released cars is generally “last in, first out.” A locomotive is hooked up to the pin of the nearest car and hauls the cars out of the area, a process that generally takes no more than 10 minutes, he said.

He explained steps AWRR will take to prevent reoccurrences include “eliminating and reducing storage cars on the line, and the cars that are out there are being moved away from the crossings so we never need to get in front of those crossings to pick them up.”

“We run through all of the communities out there and it has been a huge focus of ours to be good neighbors in those communities,” Anderson said. “Certainly we are not ones to want to cause any ruckus. Our people have been fielding calls from the public and doing a good job of making sure to apologize for the issue and to make sure they understand this won't happen again.”

Anderson added either he or his representative will definitely attend the July 24 court meeting to meet with commissioners to discuss the issue.

On Tuesday, July 10, a train was blocking the intersection of County Road 120 (Fairland Road) and County Road 123 (Tobyville Cemetery Road) for several hours, during which time Marble Falls Area EMS had a 2:25 p.m. medical call on Crider Road for “a patient with severe difficulty breathing and possible heart problems,” according to a letter from MFAEMS operations director Kevin Naumann to Precinct 1 Commissioner Jim Luther Jr.

Within two minutes, the patient had advised dispatch that Unit 21, which responded to the call, would have to take another route because a train was blocking the roadway.

“With only this limited information, our crew assumed the train was in the same location as a prior shift and opted to respond up Hwy 1431 to Fairland Road (approx 3 minutes out of the way),” Naumann wrote.

When the unit arrived at the intersection of County Roads 120 and 123 and Crider Road to find a train blocking the roadway, the unit would have had to turn around and go an hour out of the way to find an alternate route to the patient had it not been for someone working for the quarry operation located at that intersection.

“However as the unit was turning around, a person involved at the quarry operations at that intersection advised that we could cut through their property to access Crider Road. M21 traveled through the quarry plant on dirt road to make access to the patient,” Naumann wrote, noting the unit arrived at 2:55 p.m. — 30 minutes after the initial call.

“This was a total of only a 30 minute response time, which is actually fairly impressive due to the distance and trek across the quarry, however should we have needed to turn around to make access down another county road, this would have resulted in approximately double that response time,” Naumann continued.

“Our concern is not so much about the actual blockage of the road as much as it is about notification. As you can imagine, relying on a distressed patient to tell us exactly what road is blocked is not a reliable plan. Additionally, a delay of this sort may have devastating consequences for a patient in critical condition.”

Naumann said he hopes a notificaiton system can be established with Austin Western Railroad to inform dispatchers and first responders when and where railroad activity may be taking place that would block a highway or road because “if we had this information we could plan responses accordingly.”

Austin Western Railroad dates back to 1871, when the Houston and Texas Central Railroad built the Giddings to Austin line, according to the company's website. Nearly 49,000 carloads move annually, shipping commodities such as aggregates, crushed limestone, calcium bicarbonate, lumber, beer, chemicals, plastics, and paper on its line.

AWRR is a division of Watco Companies, a Kansas-based company which operates 38 short-line railroads and more than 5,100 miles of track nationwide.

The line is shared by Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which began commuter rail service in March 2010.

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