Alpine residents concerned with new road blockages

ALPINE – Street blockages by trains changing crews in downtown Alpine have been exacerbated recently with a new Union Pacific rule that westbound trains should stop at the Amtrak depot instead of stopping short of 5th Street as they have been doing for the past 23 years.

In negotiating the move of crew changes from Sanderson to Alpine in 1996, the railroad agreed to stop short of 5th Street in both directions because 5th is the principal connection between north and south Alpine.

The railroad said at the time, and has repeated it since, that crew changes will only take five to seven minutes, but crew changes as long as 30 minutes have been observed recently.

Eastbound trains were not an issue because the depot is west of the street.

“This recent change in the railroad crew-changing operation will definitely affect both the south and north sides of Alpine from a general citizen’s aspect of access to essential needs and services such as schools, jobs and emergency medical issues,” said David Busey, owner of La Azteca Jewelry across the street from the depot.

Busey was Alpine director of community relations when the railroad deal was negotiated and he said the agreement was reached before the crew-change move was finalized.

“It also will affect the present and future tourism-related businesses on Murphy Street, as well as future economic development opportunities there,” he said. “It should be noted that the original negotiated agreement with the city administration for railroad crew changes in Alpine was not to block 5th Street, as it was an essential corridor within the city.”

The change is not only a problem for businesses, it also affects residents needing to cross the tracks to get from home to work and school, as well as impeding emergency vehicles. Just last week, an ambulance with an elderly patient on board was held up by a train for several minutes.

The railroad has an agreement with Alpine emergency service providers to provide access to emergency vehicles. But a long freight stopped downtown can take ten minutes or more to clear a crossing, sometimes blocking all five grade crossings in the city at once if the train is long enough. That was what held up the ambulance last week.

City Manager Erik Zimmer said he has talked to some railroad officials about resolving the issue.

“Is a person who can operate a locomotive really afraid to walk across the street?” Zimmer asked. “An operator of equipment that large should have been taught to look both ways.”

Zimmer said he sees the issue as a problem but says it also presents some opportunities.

“I see this as related to the Quiet Zone,” he said. “The railroad does not particularly like quiet zones but they understand why we feel we need them.”

He said there was an effort in 2011 to move crew change east of town, but that fell through. Getting crew changes out of town would reduce the need for a quiet zone because trains would clear all crossings more quickly, as the trains would be at higher speeds.

Busey said there was an earlier effort in 2000 to move the crew change west of town, and the city had been offered a grant from the Texas Department of Transportation of nearly $1 million.

The railroad agreed to the plan, but city council voted against it.

Union Pacific Public Affairs Officer Raquel Espinoza of Omaha said the railroad operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and “we try to move through efficiently, in the safest way. I checked on it and management said they want the crew change at the Amtrak depot because it has good lighting and a more even surface. We have asked the crews to exit at the Amtrak depot.”

She agreed to provide feedback to management.

Zimmer said he and Councilor Rick Stephens were already working on transportation issues which include moving the crew changes out of downtown and a possible Quiet Zone at affected crossings.

Zimmer has suggested one long-term solution––to reroute the tracks completely around the north side of the city, thus eliminating several existing problems.

“That could be transformational,” Zimmer said. “Just think what that would do to the downtown.”

“What will it take?” he asked. “We can look at grants but it’s vital to put a plan in place and set some money aside. Committing resources improves exponentially your chances of getting grants.

“We need a three-step process,” Zimmer said. “First review the law and find what the constraints are and come up with a plan within those restraints, then come up with engineering drawings and determine a price, and third provide a way to resources through grants or putting money aside.”