Problems at Ferry Street rail crossing

A problem with the signal system at the Ferry Street railroad crossing in Anoka caused the safety gates to go down and stay down for an hour and a half on Saturday evening.

ferryThere was an issue with the communication systems that operates the lights and gates at Ferry Street, according to Amy McBeth, spokesperson for Burlington-Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad.

“This means that, for safety reasons, the gates will be in the down position until an issue can be investigated and addressed, if needed,” said McBeth.

Once the signal maintenance person arrived, he was able to reset the communications system and the gates were back to normal operation, she said.

Todd Arnold, who lives and works just north of the Anoka County Fairgrounds, called in the problem around 5:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Arnold said he saw BNSF workers arrive to fix the problem at 6:30 p.m. The gates were back in working order by 6:45 p.m.

“To take an hour and 15 minutes to get someone out there is unacceptable,” said Arnold.

After receiving calls Saturday about the problems at the crossing, the Anoka Police Department had the city’s public works staff put up “road closed” barricades to keep drivers out of the area.

Capt. Scott Nolan said there were reports of people driving around the safety arms to cross the tracks once they realized no trains were coming. That is illegal, he said.

This is the third time in the past year Arnold has called in an issue with the crossing arms, he said.

McBeth confirmed there were two other instances in the past two months where the call center received reports of problems at this crossing.

“One case was related to a maintenance issue and the other to switching activity,” said McBeth.

The light and gate system is designed to be activated when there is a train in the area or if something interrupts communications to the warning system, she said.

“Such situations caused these two other incidents, and in fact the system operated as intended,” said McBeth.

With all that has taken place at that crossing, “I can’t believe there’s not someone out there smart enough to fix the problem,” said Arnold.

In 2003 four young people were killed at the crossing when their vehicle was struck by a BNSF freight train.

Back in 2008, a jury trial in Anoka County District Court found BNSF 90 percent liable in the accident that killed Bridgette M. Shannon, 17, of Ramsey; Corey E. Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids; Brian L. Frazier, 20, of Newport; and Harry J. Rhoades Jr., 19, of Blaine.

But this is not the only frustration at the Ferry Street crossing experienced by Arnold and thousands of other drivers who use the corridor.

When a westbound Northstar train pulls into the Anoka Commuter Rail Station, it triggers the gates to go down at Ferry Street.

The railroad’s communication system does not detect the type of train coming, and assumes the train will continue through the intersection and can’t allow for the fact that the Northstar will be stopping at the Anoka station to pick up or drop off passengers.

This is also creating a big safety concern for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), said Jim Weatherhead, a project manager with the department’s rail administration.

When drivers don’t see a train coming and assume it is the Northstar that has triggered the safety arms, some people have been driving around the arms to cross the railroad tracks, according to Weatherhead.

But since this is a double track situation, a freight train could be coming from the other direction, traveling 60 mph, Weatherhead said.

“This has got to be one of the most complex crossings we have across the state,” he said.

A lot of vehicle traffic, a number of different types of trains that use the double track along with switching activity that takes place in the area all add to the complexity.

The crossing arms must be down for minimum of 20 seconds before the train enters the intersection, but Weatherhead said usually an extra five-second buffer is built in.

After receiving a troubling complaint last fall he called in the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to do a thorough inspection of this particular crossing.

“The system is working as it is designed to,” said Weatherhead.

And while he knows it is frustrating for drivers who experience congestion as far back on Ferry Street as Highway 10, “everyone would rather see the gates down than not down when they need to be,” he said.

In response to the safety concerns, MnDOT has plans to put in a quad gate at the Ferry Street crossing – a four-gate system that would make it impossible for drivers to get around the safety arms.

Arnold said as a kid growing up he used to see people drive around the safety arms a lot, but since the 2003 accident he has not seen that happening.

Quiet zone

Starting on Dec. 23, 2012 the city of Anoka received approval from MnDOT to implement a nighttime quiet zone.

Trains are no longer required to sound their horns at the Ferry Street and Fourth Avenue crossings between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

But it has been anything but silent.

“There is no quiet zone,” said Arnold.

McBeth said BNSF has safety concerns if the train horn is no longer regularly sounded at those two crossings.

“BNSF has requested delay in implementation to allow for consideration of additional proposed improvements by MnDOT, as well as requested further review by FRA of safety concerns for this proposed quiet zone,” she said.

And while BNSF had requested a direct order from the FRA to observe the quiet zone, in information provided by Anoka’s Public Services Director Greg Lee, the FRA has said this is not part of the required procedure to establish a quiet zone and that BNSF was expected to comply.

Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]