Railroad blocks US 281 days after meeting

By Lew K. Cohn

Managing Editor

Burnet Bulletin

Apologetic Austin Western Railroad officials promised Burnet County commissioners on July 24 they would put in place measures to prevent trains from blocking busy intersections for longer than 15 minutes after several incidents which took place last month.

However, just two days after receiving assurances the problem would be resolved, it happened again as a train blocked US 281 Thursday afternoon, July 26, for nearly half an hour, a situation Burnet County Judge James Oakley and Precinct 1 Commissioner Jim Luther Jr. have called “unacceptable.”

“At about 4 p.m., we look up and our phones start ringing with claims from residents that US 281 was closed for 25 to 30 minutes,” Oakley said. “I know that on the north side of the track, it was backed up all the way to the intersection of US 281 and Park Road 4, which I would guess to be about three miles or so.

“We all expect a train to cross the highway on the tracks and I don't think we have a problem when they are moving because we have some expectation of when they will be finished. We can look for the caboose. It is when they are stopped with no warning that people get frustrated. And this was just 48 hours after they talked to us about this not happening again, so the oven was definitely still hot.”

The railroad line in question holds empty storage cars 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. Closings occur when crews must pick up cars, which are owned by other companies, when they are released from storage and must block the highway in order to move the storage cars.

Oakley said he called Austin Western Railroad general manager John Anderson that day in an attempt to verify how long highway was closed to through traffic.

“To their credit, they are looking into that incident and Mr. Anderson indicateed he was waiting to get the logbooks from the locomotive engines, which would include details on why the crossing was blocked and for how long,” Oakley said. “I have not heard anything back yet from them about this.”

While there was no immediate indication that first responders were impacted by the blocked highway, Luther said a lack of notification of when a closure is going to happen can put lives in jeopardy.

“The question still is, 'How do we know when a highway is going to be blocked?'” Luther said. “We don't know where a road may blocked along the line if we are not given any kind of notification, so our first responders don't know when they may have to take an alternate route when responding to an emergency.”

Luther said the most recent blockage reportedly did not include County Roads 120 (Fairland Road) or 123 (Tobyville Cemetery Road) in his precinct.

On Tuesday, July 10, a train blocked the intersection of those two roads for several hours, which impeded Marble Falls Area EMS in getting to a patient, Mojo Cornelius, who was experiencing severe shortness of breath and chest pain from a possible heart issue.

It took the ambulance more than 30 minutes to arrive to Cornelius, but it would have been longer if Luther hadn't coordinated clearance through a local quarry to help MFAEMS reroute their ambulance to get to the patient.

At the Tuesday, July 24, commissioners court meeting, Luther dressed down Anderson and Capital Metro vice president of rail operations Dave Dech, both of whom apologized to the board and took responsibility for the shutdown.

“We're talking about people's lives,” Luther said. “It took them 35 minutes to respond on a call that should have been 10 to 13 minutes at most and that is not acceptable.

“When you do not call anyone to tell them the highway is going to be blocked, that is a problem. I suggest that you do not let this happen again in Burnet County.”

Oakley demanded to know why the person who actually made the decision to block the highway was not present at the July 24 meeting, despite Oakley asking to hear directly from that individual.

“You both take responsibility, but you didn't make that decision,” Oakley said. “Who was the person who thought it was ok to close down a US Highway for hours at a time? Why is that person not here? I specifically asked for that person to be here. What happened was not an accident. It was an intentional act by someone.”

Anderson said from now on, cars should be removed from the line in reverse order of when they were put into storage and road closures should be limited to 15 minutes or less.

“We had never had an issue like this before,” Anderson said. “I have reached out to our (railroad car) customers and reiterated to them what happened and how asking for specific cars does not help our business.”

“Ultimately, because we own the rail line, it ultimately is on us that we failed and it is not acceptable at any time,” Dech said.

Oakley said he has told Anderson that if US 281 was only blocked for 15 minutes or less on July 26, it still could mean a need to change the company's procedures regarding car storage and retrieval.

“My position is that, if it was closed for only 10 to 15 minutes and we still had that sort of backup, I am asking them to rethink their policy on that to help minimize the closures which are necessary on 281,” Oakley said. “The average daily traffic on that highway is 23,000 cars. It is one of the busiest highways in the state and should not ever be blocked like that for a long period of time.”

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