With new proposed ordinance, Alpine plans to fine for blocked crossings

ALPINE — City Manager Erik Zimmer thought Alpine’s train problems were over. But after decades of working to reduce blocked crossings, Union Pacific is once again parking through the middle of town — and residents are complaining.

So, Zimmer and other officials reached out. They asked Union Pacific if the company would consider doing its crew changes outside of town to mitigate traffic. Or at the very least, if it would stop its westbound trains from blocking 5th Street, the main north-south thoroughfare in Alpine.

Last month, Alpine heard back. In an email, a spokesman for Union Pacific said the company “believes the best course of action is to leave the crew change at its current location.” In other words: parked across 5th street, so that crew can disembark on the platform.

The company cited “safety concerns with our personnel crossing the street” and said it does not believe that using a city crosswalk is a “viable option.” Still, the company said it is committed to expediting crew changes and will “remain vigilant and available to city personnel.”

Alpine wasn’t having it. Last week, the city council passed the first reading of a new ordinance aimed at stopping the blockages. Under the proposed rule, the city would fine train operators $1,000 if they block the crossing for more than 10 minutes, as well as $100 for each additional minute.

In the ordinance, Alpine said keeping road-train crossings (and especially 5th Street) clear is a “requirement” to make sure that “emergency response may reach southern portions of the city.” Union Pacific did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

In an interview, Zimmer said council “took action” because the blocked crossing on 5th Street “really poses some challenges for us.”

Union Pacific has often blocked the crossing for more than 20 minutes, he said, citing times measured by the Alpine police. Alpine Police Chief Robert Martin “has his team timing it whenever they’re out on patrol,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also didn’t buy the argument that train crew couldn’t use city crosswalks. He said he’d asked the company why “folks can operate multi-million dollar trains and they can’t cross the street.”

“They didn’t like that comment,” Zimmer said. And besides, he added, police have observed crewmembers parking their cars on the other side of 5th Street and then walking across.

For some longtime residents, the train drama might feel like bad déjà vu.

In the 1990s, Alpine residents also dealt with blocked crossings and snarled traffic in the middle of Alpine. Finally, Union Pacific promised to resolve the issues.

A letter, dated in December 1997 and sent from the company’s then-director of community relations, commemorates the occasion. The company said it would “review” concerns about “lengthy blocked crossings in the downtown area.” And it promised to make recommendations to fix the problem, including: doing “periodic checks” of wait times, instructing crew to do changes without blocking 5th Street and ensuring crews were “ready to depart” before they even arrived in town.

“Union Pacific is pleased to be a member of the Alpine community,” the community-relations director noted for good measure — adding that the city’s 5th Street railroad park was “very impressive” and that he would be “happy to provide” the city with decorative decals. Alpine and Union Pacific, it seemed, had finally come to a truce.

Then, last year, frustrated Alpine residents started once again contending with blocked crossings. And the crossings are often blocked around 5 p.m. — just in time for workers’ commutes home.

“For the longest time, [Union Pacific] would never block 5th Street — ever,” said Geo Calderon, an Alpine resident. “And it was really obvious when they started doing it, because it was something they never used to do.” (Although Calderon is also the records clerk for the City of Alpine, he stressed he was speaking as a resident and not in his official capacity.)

Blocked crossings are more than an inconvenience, said Stephanie Elmore, who runs the Office of Emergency Management for Brewster County. The 5th Street is one of the main conduits into the southern parts of town. On the city’s northside, 5th Street also leads directly to the Big Bend Regional Medical Center, the main hospital for the area.

For those reasons, Elmore and other officials say that blocked train crossings threaten public safety and the well-being of Alpine residents south of the tracks. When a firetruck or ambulance encounters a blocked crossing, Elmore estimates it adds around five or 10 minutes to the trip. “It causes our departments to go and keep looking for another route,” she said.

In emergency situations, an extra five or 10 minutes is “quite an amount of time,” Elmore said. And that estimate doesn’t even account for other slowdowns, like when ambulances get stuck in car traffic caused by the blocked crossings.

It would be “really great” if Union Pacific would keep thoroughfares like 5th Street clear, Elmore said. “It’d be very beneficial to everybody — especially emergency responders.”