Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is calling on the Wisconsin Southern Railroad to make significant changes to its policies at railroad crossings after an incident last month he labeled "horrendous."
The mayor's comments came after hundreds of people were stuck for more than 40 minutes at crossings on East Washington Avenue and Johnson Street at 2:10 p.m. on April 9. The delay was caused because the railroad could not park its 131-car train in its northside yard.
"I found this as being held hostage, I could not move for over 40 minutes," said Sue Aiello, who contacted the News 3 Call For Action volunteers after she was frustrated by the response she got from her complaint to the railroad.
Aiello had left work early that afternoon to make a doctor's appointment on Park Street and decided to get there from the east side by going around the Capitol. "I missed my doctor's appointment and now I can't get in until the end of July."
Soglin said the episode, which left to hundreds of Madison schoolkids out in the freezing rain because their buses couldn't get through, was "unacceptable for the kids, not to mention the economic loss to thousands of Madisonians." He said while he believed the 40-minute delay was an outlier, "We are getting more and more incidents of crossings impaired for 15-30 minutes. They've got to change their policies."
A spokesman for the railroad apologized for the incident in an email to News 3 and said it would look to avoid inconveniences in the future.
"[April 9] was an unusual and isolated circumstance and railroad officials are working to develop a different plan to handle the longer and more frequent trains here in Madison and Dane County," wrote Ken Lucht. "The WSOR is sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused to local commuters.
"The WSOR has seen an uptick in rail demand here in Madison and Dane County over the last two years. The WSOR serves over 40 businesses throughout Madison and Dane County on a regular bases -- hauling close to 800,000 tons of commerce each and every year. Our longer trains are a function of more business demand and more frequent service to businesses throughout Madison and Dane County. Nationally, rail demand is expected to double over the next 20 years," Lucht wrote.
Madison City Ordinance 10.24 forbids railroad crossings to be blocked for more than five minutes at a time during most of the day and three minutes during rush hour. Wisconsin state law prohibits crossings to be blocked for more than 10 minutes.
News 3 investigated the crossing at John Nolen Drive and Broom Street because an off-duty Madison police sergeant had filed a report claiming she was stuck at that intersection waiting for a train to go through for 19 minutes on March 7. The station looked at the last two weeks worth of video and found the gates went down 18 times. Ten of those times, they stayed down longer than Madison's ordinance permits.
Despite the railroad's own acknowledgement its trains are getting longer, the city has not issued a citation to the railroad for more than a decade. The ordinance allows for the conductor, brakeman or engineer to be fined up to $100 per incident and the company up to $200 for violating the five-minute rule and up to $500 for a delay during rush hour.
"We have an ordinance that we can't enforce," said Madison Assistant City Attorney Steven Brist, who handled the city's railroad cases. "Unfortunately, the courts have told us this type of an ordinance is preempted by federal law.
"I feel almost, the word would be legally impotent."
Numerous recent court decisions stemming from cases in California, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota have indicated the Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act of 1994 prohibits local regulation of crossings. The courts have indicated regulation lies with Congress as it's an example of interstate commerce.
The whole situation frustrates Sue Aiello.
"I'm a stickler for the rules and I have to follow rules, I believe everyone should even the railroad," she said. "If there's an ordinance and it's being violated on a regular basis, the violators need to be held accountable."