ENDERLIN, N.D. – Faced with long wait times at rail crossings blocked by trains, one North Dakota town is getting aggressive with railroads even as another town has backed off.
The police chief in Berthold, a small Oil Patch town west of Minot, has new marching orders from City Hall: Ticket the train engineer the next time a BNSF Railway train blocks both crossings in town for more than 20 minutes.
Berthold is taking a page out of Enderlin’s ordinance book, after the city of about 900 people on the other side of the state directed its police to do the same.
But Enderlin backed down on Monday, repealing the ordinance it passed in October that imposed stiff penalties for trains that blocked railway crossings for more than 10 minutes.
The repeal came three months after Canadian Pacific sued Enderlin in federal court, seeking to have the ordinance struck down by arguing it was an illegal regulation of interstate commerce.
City Auditor Cyndee Chesley said the City Council repealed the ordinance in a unanimous vote. She said she could not discuss what was said at the meeting about the repeal and referred questions to Ransom County Attorney Fallon Kelly.
Kelly couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Spokesman Andy Cummings said in an emailed statement Wednesday, “CP is pleased the city has repealed this ordinance. We stand ready to engage in a dialogue with city leaders about any rail operations issues they may have.”
Enderlin’s ordinance made blocking a rail crossing for more than 10 minutes a misdemeanor carrying a mandatory sentence of two days in jail and a $500 fine.
The city law was prompted by frustration with trains that blocked roads for up to four hours at a time, Mayor Deon Maasjo said in October. Maasjo couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Following the ordinance’s repeal, a judge ordered Canadian Pacific’s lawsuit dismissed.
Enderlin is on the border of Ransom and Cass counties, about 40 miles southwest of Fargo. Berthold, which plans some stalled-train enforcement similar to what Enderlin tried, for the same reasons, is a city of about 450 people about 20 miles west of Minot.
Berthold Mayor Alan Lee said the council approved the action last month, but he wanted to check with the city attorney first. He learned that state law makes it a Class B misdemeanor for a train to block vehicle traffic for more than 10 minutes, with some exceptions.
Lee said Tuesday police will rely on state law in writing the ticket and leave it to a judge to determine what the fine would be, if any. The council’s motion calls for a $500 fine, but a misdemeanor of that class goes to a maximum $1,500 fine and 30 days in jail.
“It shouldn’t take more than one occurrence,” the mayor said.
Lee said the crossings are blocked often enough to present a problem for the community’s fire and ambulance services, as well as causing school buses to fall behind schedule. He said the blockages don’t make sense given that BNSF has built double tracks both directions from Berthold and could hold the trains outside of town on those.
“They’re a big corporation, but this is also our crossing. Safety is a big concern,” Lee said.
BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth says communities have grown up around the railroad, setting up conflict between trains and vehicle traffic.
Ideally, towns would have over- or underpasses to relieve that conflict, but given the public expense to build one, the railroad tries to improve communication between train crews and dispatchers to limit the time at a crossing, she said.
She said the new 55 miles of double track, plus more that’s planned, should help trains move more efficiently through the area.
In an earlier story on train blockages affecting New Salem and Rhame, McBeth said the railroad’s policy is to cut trains at crossings after 10 minutes to let traffic through. She said the train crew may decide that it will take longer to cut the train and rehook it than to wait and move out.
Thanks at least in part to increased crude oil production, BNSF traffic in North Dakota is at an historic high, with outbound trains up by nearly 200 percent since 2009 and inbound up nearly 120 percent.
Lauren Donovan is a reporter at the Bismarck Tribune, a media partner with Forum News Service.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599