Slow going on swap

Saturday, February 11, 2006

CHAFFEE, Mo. -- More Union Pacific trains are now running through Chaffee, but not because a contentious track swap between UP and Burlington Northern Santa Fe in the area has been approved.

Last March, UP filed with the federal Surface Transportation Board for permission to swap a 23.7-mile stretch of track between Rockview and Sikeston with BNSF. In exchange BNSF would gain some UP track in Colorado.

Originally estimates by the STB -- a federal regulatory agency that reviews such transactions -- indicated a decision would be made on the proposal by next month. However, the process has slowed greatly.

An environmental review to study the proposal's impact on local people and the environment was started last June but is now dragging.

"Apparently the STB's workload has prevented them from completing their review of this project within 12 months as we had previously expected," said Chris Peterson, director of governmental affairs with UP.

The STB's environmental review specialists say there's so much workload right now they can't even begin to estimate how long the review period might go on.

The proposed swap has ruffled the feathers of city and county governments, since it will mean an increase of 10 or 11 large trains per day through the area.

The governments of Sikeston and Oran have expressed concern that the extra trains may block crossings for exceptionally longer periods -- possibly blocking emergency personnel from reaching those in distress on the other side. The Scott County Commission has also expressed strong disaproval of the swap.

"We still don't really see the need for what this track swap is going to bring at all," said Commissioner Jamie Burger. "UP still has tracks through Stoddard County. It's the burden of track swap in Colorado we're shouldering."

But for UP the swap would be a great business move. The railroad currently operates a single-line track running from Rockview to Dexter, Mo., which connects to Sikeston. Acquiring the track from Rockview to Sikeston would allow the railroad to operate two single lines and route trains in the opposite direction along the two at the same time.

The track from Rockview to Sikeston is the same track that UP coal trains have recently started using at a rate of one or two per day, by permission of BNSF. If the proposed swap goes through the rate will increase by 10 per day at least.

Meanwhile another BNSF activity has sparked questions about the swap. Railroad ties have been seen lining the track operated by BNSF from Rockview to Sikeston.

The ties aren't evidence of UP readying to improve its new track, said Steve Forsberg, spokesman for BNSF. Instead the ties are being replaced as part of BNSF's routine maintenance activity between St. Louis and Sikeston.

"I'm really not sure what the status of the track swap is," said Forsberg.

As the STB reviews the railroad request to swap track, Peterson said UP is working with local officials and the STB to relieve some of their concerns.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson doesn't support the proposal in its current form, but might support it if UP was willing to work toward certain actions, like crossing overpasses in Sikeston and along U.S. 60.

Peterson said such proposals are not out of the question.

But one point hasn't yet been added to the debate, Peterson said. On the line BNSF currently operates the railroad could double or triple traffic any time without having to go through any review process.

"The communities would not even have a chance to participate in the STB review process," said Peterson.

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