Bumpy ride in Scott City: Failed attempts to work with railroad frustrate city officials

Monday, January 29, 2007
Negotiations between Scott City and Union Pacific to purchase land and a parking lot owned by the railroad have strained relations between the two. (Kit Doyle)

The railroad has always been a part of life in Scott City, as it has always been a part of life for Jane Hart.

Hart grew up in the Scott City area near the tracks. Her grandfather, father, two brothers and an uncle all worked on the rails, and Hart remembers riding to St. Louis and Arkansas on the passenger trains that used to stop in the city.

"Nearly everybody in town worked on the railroad. It was a booming place at one time," the 71-year-old Hart said. She still lives near the tracks, just feet away from where Union Pacific trains enter and leave the area known as Illmo on the eastern edge of Scott City. Instead of an annoyance, Hart finds the loud horns and the rumble of freight moving along the tracks to be a comfort.

But lately the railroad has caused new annoyances for city leaders, who say the company is unresponsive to their requests and unwilling or unable to provide information they need in a timely manner. On issues from Union Pacific mowing the grass on its property, to advance warning about blocked crossings, to negotiations to purchase railroad property, the current city government has frequently butted heads with the railroad company over the past few years. Sometimes, city leaders are publicly calling out UP in the council chambers, sitting just a few feet away from the city flag emblazoned with the image of a speeding locomotive.

"The only time we've ever got any real answers out of UP is when we got the transportation safety people involved," Scott City Mayor Tim Porch said. "We've even been asked by some railroad reps what we've got against the railroad. Heck, we're a railroad town. We've got nothing against the railroad. We've got nothing against the guy who needs to mow his yard. We've got nothing against a guy that needs to tear his house down because it's unsafe."

Despite the railroad's long history in Scott City, Porch said the city government's relationship with UP is "a relationship in its infancy."

Porch is not alone among city leaders in his frustration. City administrator Ron Eskew says it can be tough to navigate the company's massive bureaucracy. The most recent example is the city's negotiations with Union Pacific to purchase a parcel of land the city has leased from the railroad for 30 years. The land is situated on Main Street and provides parking for business customers and truck drivers. The land is also the site of an old railroad caboose the city hopes to one day open up as a historical interpretation site.

The negotiations have been going on for months, and Eskew said the city now has to start over because the railroad's real estate personnel for the local area have changed.

"We just spent a year dealing with one guy, and there were eight channels above him it had to go through," Eskew said. "Now he's no longer with that territory, and the new manager asked for a map identifying property."

One of the council's most outspoken members on the city's relationship with UP is Ward 2 Councilman John Crail. Earlier this month Crail expressed outrage at a council meeting over late notice the railroad provided when it was performing repairs that shut down two city crossings, almost cutting off half the town from emergency services. The notice came on the morning the work was set to begin.

"We welcome any and all businesses, but you can't communicate with somebody that's not going to communicate back," Crail said. "It really ticks me off, because my side of town, the south end, is all blocked off any time they do anything."

The communities that now make up Scott City -- Illmo, Fornfelt and Ancell -- have a long history with railroads. The railroads and their expansion into the area were responsible for the towns' genesis in the early 20th century. The three communities formed, first as camps to construct the rails and the bridge across the Mississippi River that brought trains from Illinois to Missouri (giving Illmo its name), then as places inhabited by railroad personnel. Hart's family is part of that legacy, as is Porch's, whose father-in-law was a railroad worker.

Today, only six railroad employees operate out of Scott City, primarily performing maintenance duties. But in excess of 40 trains still run through the city on a daily basis. The companies that later folded into UP were the same ones that blazed a trail through the area in the early 1900s.

Scott City isn't the only town along UP's lines that expresses frustration dealing with railroad bureaucracy. Sikeston engaged in a protracted battle of words with UP in 2005 and 2006 over the railroad's proposal to acquire Burlington-Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks that run through the town, thereby increasing train traffic. UP decided to drop the proposal.

The trains that run through Scott City find their way to Dexter in Stoddard County, a town of similar population which has a railroad depot just outside its city limits. Dexter's city administrator Mark Stidham said he frequently encounters trouble with railroad bureaucracy. Trains continually block city crossings, and like Scott City, UP's tracks in Dexter bisect the city.

"If you think the government's bad, the railroad's even worse," said Stidham.

But Stidham said he has a few railroad contacts in Dexter he can talk to about any city/railroad issue, and they will provide answers for him. Those answers may be a while in coming, though, because Stidham's contacts often have to consult with other railroad personnel for answers.

Stidham said other than blocked crossings, Dexter's main issue with the railroad has been maintenance of railroad-owned drainage ditches, But any complaints were answered fairly quickly -- within about 45 days, Stidham said.

Scott City has successfully worked with UP in the past to resolve issues like mowing property along the tracks. Police Chief Don Cobb said at first he ticketed the railroad for tall grass growing along the tracks in the summer, but he's worked out an arrangement by which the city mows the land using municipal prisoner labor and bills the railroad for the work.

The drainage system along the rails is an issue Scott City will soon have to work on with UP. Porch said the city will talk to the railroad about updating its antiquated culvert system soon.

UP spokesman James Barnes said Scott City's difficulty communicating with the railroad isn't out of a desire to snub the city, but the complexity of the railroad's organization. "Due to the complexity of the issues that our railroad is responsible for handling," it's difficult to have one person with specialized knowledge to answer all questions, said Barnes.

Porch said he doesn't need someone who knows everything, just a central point of contact for his questions.

"We're growing around their tracks, and we've got to get some cooperation from them," Porch said.

The rapport between the city government and railroad is improving somewhat, he said, and he hopes that trend continues.

"We'd like to be their partner, they're part of the heritage of this town," Porch said.


335-6611, extension 182

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