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Arizona lawmakers want to reduce the length of trains following Ohio derailment

If you’ve been stuck for minutes or hours waiting to get across railroad tracks, Arizona lawmakers are moving to provide relief.

Legislation approved Friday by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure would limit the length of trains going through the state to 8,500 feet.

And while 1.6 miles may seem like a lot, Scott Jones, a licensed locomotive engineer in Arizona, told lawmakers that the two main railroads operating in the state have been running trains a lot longer than that.

What’s wrong with that, he said, is when they have to stop to do switching operations. And he said that can leave trains on the main track extending out of the yard — and blocking traffic on both sides.

Scott cited photos of a 16,800-foot train, half of it carrying new cars and trucks to the vehicle distribution facility in El Mirage. “And they’re blocking crossings all the way down Grand Avenue,” he said, stretching as far as Bell Road to 99th Avenue in Sun City. And in the meantime, Scott said, access across the tracks at Thompson Ranch Road, including to a school and fire station, remained blocked for an hour and 20 minutes.

There are other situations in downtown Phoenix in the rail yard near Chase Field, Scott said, where people trying to get to the ballpark from the south on streets that have grade crossings are blocked.

But Rep. Consuelo Hernandez (D-Tucson) whose district extends into rural Santa Cruz County, said this isn’t strictly an urban problem. She said roads in her area of the state have been blocked for more than an hour.

“When you can’t get across because a train is crossing, that means you can’t go to work, you can’t go to school,” Hernandez said. “It also means that if there’s an accident, God forbid, the first responders cannot get to that location on time.”

She also read a letter of support from Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, who cited incidents where Fortuna Road has been impassible for up to two hours. “This road is a major arterial access point from Interstate 8 to Highway 95 going north,” Dunn wrote. “If there is an emergency where Rural Metro first responders are dispatched from the Foothills location and find that Fortuna is blocked by a two-mile-long train, Rural Metro first reponders must be dispatched from the city of Yuma, costing a 12-minute time delay in a situation where seconds count.”

Dunn acknowledged that longer trains may be more economical for companies to operate.

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, which bills itself as an independent, nonprofit think tank, produced a report saying that a train of 10,000 to 12,000 feet moving freight between Illinois and New Jersey would cost around $60,000. Splitting the same freight between two 5,000-foot trains, it said, would cost $74,000.

But Dunn wrote that he was not convinced the longer trains are a good idea in Arizona.

“While two-mile-long trains might be economic possibly in the future, they are not working with current infrastructure in Arizona,” Hernandez read from Dunn’s letter.

Hernandez, speaking for herself, said there’s also something beyond traffic for her colleagues to consider.

She cited the train derailment earlier this month in East Palestine, Ohio where freight cars filled with a variety of toxic chemicals spilled, creating a hazardous situation.

Some of the chemicals, including five rail cars with cancer-causing vinyl chloride, were intentionally burned off to avoid an explosion. And while there was a temporary evacuation, some residents continue to complain of rashes and respiratory problems.

Federal investigators have said it appears the incident was caused with a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.

But CBS News said employees working the train told them they believe the train’s excessive length and weight — 151 cars, 9,300 feet and 18,000 tons — was a factor in an earlier breakdown and the ultimate derailment.

“I don’t want that to happen in Arizona,” Hernandez said.

The more frequent issue, however, deals with traffic.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are no federal laws or regulations on blocked crossings. Nor are there state laws.

What does exist, Scott told lawmakers, are regulations of the Arizona Corporation Commission which prohibit railroads from blocking public grade crossings for more than 10 continuous minutes unless it is moving continuously in one direction. But he told lawmakers that isn’t providing any relief. “They essentially log in the complaints,” Scott said.

He may not be entirely neutral on the issue as he’s also a lobbyist for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the country’s largest rail union. And Scott complained of what he said has been a history of the rail companies trying to save money through things like longer trains and less staffing.

No one from any of the railroad companies that operate in Arizona came to the meeting to testify on House Bill 2531 even though it was filed and available online nearly a month ago and has been on the committee agenda for days.

The 10-0 vote, with only Rep. Neal Carter (R-San Tan Valley) abstaining, sends the measure to the full House.

Tom Maxedon was the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition from 2017 to 2024.