Potter residents raise concerns after stopped trains block tracks

POTTER, NE — Residents in a small Panhandle town are raising concerns after recently having the entrance to their town blocked by stopped trains.

"We appreciate all the railroads do to help keep our communities thriving, but at the same time we've got to figure out a way to work together so we're not stopping each other from progress," resident Drew Enevoldsen said.

The Village of Potter in the Nebraska Panhandle is looking for an open lane. Residents in the town have told News Channel Nebraska, the main entrance into their town off Highway 30 has been blocked multiple times in recent weeks by stopped trains.

Residents like Enevoldsen say it hits businesses in town hard.

"With trains blocking the crossings, sometimes for 30-45 minutes, it really hurts our downtown economy," he said. "We miss out on multiple tourists that could be coming into town."

Perhaps the biggest concern — and not just in Potter — is how blocked crossings impact first responders. This was the case in Potter Monday morning as crews were called out as the crossing to the Highway closest to the department was blocked.

Potter Volunteer Fire Department Public Information Officer Bob Hilpert says any potential issues are solved with communication.

"Sometimes we do not know that they're actually blocked until we get there," Hilpert said. "Sometimes the railroad is working on them and we are pre-warned that x crossing will be out for six hours and we need to detour right away. We can make that call right away when we leave the fire hall." 

This communication was on full display last Fall when Union Pacific halted traffic in the area while fire crews attended to fires along the tracks between Potter and Sidney. If that communication doesn’t happen, however, the results could be dire.

"Obviously if we can get that fire knocked down quickly and keep it from spreading, that's huge," Hilpert said. "But if we have to make this detour of two miles, five miles, 10 miles that will make that fire bigger or that rescue situation go from mild to extreme."

Hilpert said the fire department in Potter and the Union Pacific Railroad have a good working relationship with one another, although sometimes communication is lost in translation as the message is handed down through the organizations.

"We do communicate," he said. "Sometimes people don't think we are, but the railroad is not against us, they're on our side. They've been allies of ours for years."

For residents and tourists, Enevoldsen worries if this continues the impacts could be felt during big community Summer events like the Potter CarBowl.

"I don't know the answer, I just know right now, our future for this Summer's tourism is a little bleak," Enevoldsen said. 

Enevoldsen said he is concerned this will continue as freight trains get longer, sometimes upwards of 3 miles long, leading to an increased chance of a crossing being blocked while a train is stopped. 

Earlier this year, Nebraska state senator Lynne Walz of Fremont introduced LB 539 that would limit the length of freight trains in Nebraska to 7,500 feet — just under one-and-a-half miles. At the most recent committee hearing for the bill in March, both UP and BNSF Railroads spoke in opposition of the bill. 

News Channel Nebraska reached out to Union Pacific for comment on the situation in Potter. A spokesperson said the railroad has not received any reports of blocked tracks in Potter going back to mid March. They said UPRR works to minimize stopped trains by changing operating plans to move shipments more efficiently.

The spokesperson said blocked crossings usually occur when a train stops for an emergency or has a mechanical issue.

According to the Nebraska DOT, a train cannot block a public highway-rail grade crossing for more than 10 minutes unless if it stopped for an emergency situation, including (but not limited to): an accident, derailment, critical mechanical failure, track or bridge washout, storm or flood. There are also exceptions if the train is switching tracks or waiting for another train to pass. 

If those conditions are not met and the train is planned to be stopped longer than 10 minutes, the railroad company needs to break the train to provide access to the road, according to Nebraska code. 

"Every railroad shall be operated in such a manner as to minimize obstruction of emergency vehicles at highway-rail public grade crossings," the Nebraska DOT says on its website. 

The UP spokesperson said anyone can report a blocked crossing on UP tracks to the company's 24/7 Response Management Communications Center at (888) 877-7267.