Kent City Council seeks answers to stuck railroad crossing gates

Kent City Council seeks answers to stuck railroad crossing gates

The Kent City Council wants a speedy resolution to why railroad crossing gates get stuck in the down position when no trains are coming along the tracks.

The delays leave drivers frustrated and backed up in traffic while trying to get through town and across the tracks on the popular commuter routes of James, Smith and Willis streets. But so far railroad officials have been slow to provide answers and sometimes simply difficult to reach about crossing gates stuck on the Union Pacific and BNSF Railway tracks.

“We’ve had a spat of those recently,” Public Works Director Tim LaPorte said at a Jan. 3 council workshop. “This is just my own personal conjecture but I would guess we would have at least one every two weeks. …Usually they don’t occur very long. The ones during rush hour that last a long time are an absolute pain in the butt and people have no tolerance for that for obvious reasons.

“The problem is we don’t have a good handle on what causes them. We do believe the railroad system is fairly antiquated. In some cases it’s been updated, in other cases it’s not. The railroad has not been very forthright in telling us about their equipment – maybe it’s for security reasons – we are not really sure.”

During one incident in November when crossing gates got stuck, it took nearly 90 minutes before BNSF crews fixed the problem, according to city staff.

Councilman Dennis Higgins asked city staff where railroad officials come from to respond to incidents.

“They do have people stationed throughout the region,” said Kelly Peterson, city transportation manager. “They have staff in Auburn. The issue in November was due to a malfunctioning charger that was on battery backup and both batteries died, so the arms went down in the fail safe mode. BNSF indicated they requested a police escort to get here because traffic was so bad they couldn’t get through.”

Peterson said it’s been an ongoing issue to get more answers from BNSF.

“When an event occurs, we’re calling the number and ending up some place in Texas,” Peterson said. “I tried some of the contacts I had and ended up getting a guy in Nevada and he was having trouble getting information. It’s a struggle for staff when these events occur and we are trying to get some resolution to that.”

Councilman Jim Berrios asked for clarifications about why it’s so hard to reach railroad staff.

“I’m really surprised that we have a tough time getting hold of somebody,” Berrios said. “Who is our go-to person that we can talk to and say ‘we have a problem, can we get it fixed?’”

Peterson said city staff has asked BNSF for local contacts but it hasn’t happened.

Matt Mitchell, a BNSF Railway field safety manager in Seattle, told the council’s Public Works Committee in November that the agency responds as fast as possible to incidents, including stuck crossing gates.

“It varies in time how fast we get out there,” Mitchell said. “We have to get dispatchers and a couple other groups involved. We try to get out there as fast as we can to resolve the issue.”

Mitchell said BNSF is well aware of the crossing gate issues.

“Having congestion or issues with malfunctioning gates is a huge problem for us,” Mitchell said. “Kent is a great example of a place where we can figure out a system where it’s going to work. So we are actively looking at Kent as one of the places where we test out the new technology and some of the stuff that will make all of the crossings more efficient.”

City staff plans to post large signs on city right-of-way near the downtown crossings with the BNSF phone number to call if the gates get stuck. Right now BNSF supplies the number on a small sign that’s hard for drivers to see without getting out of their vehicles, according to city officials.

If drivers see the gates stuck, the number to call is 1-800-832-5452.

“We need you guys to call and report it,” Council President Bill Boyce said. “We figure the more people that call in then hopefully they will be aware that there is a problem. …Maybe we can bring a little more attention to it.”

Boyce said the topic remains a priority to get resolved.

“We’ve been having some challenges with the gates going down and no trains coming,” Boyce said. “We are trying to work through that with Burlington Northern, trying to figure out how we can work together to alleviate this problem. We are still discussing it and we will continue to work with the railroad to figure out what we can do.”

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