As spring approaches, Wayne and Rita Brasel are preparing for another six or eight months of island life.
Unfortunately, the Brasels don’t live on an island. They live near Avon Lake between Des Moines and Carlisle.
For nearly two years, the Brasels and more than 25 neighbors have spent hours stranded at their homes by idling Union Pacific Railroad trains that block the only access to their neighborhood.
“Some of these trains are over a mile long,” Wayne Brasel said. “There are about 24 people and businesses here that have no other access to get out, which also means that fire protection and ambulance is not accessible to us either.”
The Brasels say the problem began in 2017, when Union Pacific built the Wind 2 Rail distribution center near the General Mills-Avon plant and the Heartland Co-op.
It not the first time idling trains have blocked access to the neighborhood.
In the past, train cars have parked there while loading and unloading grain at General Mills and the co-op. But now trains sometimes park for hours while workers load and unload wind blades and turbine components onto rail cars.
“We’ve been here 40 years. We raised our two children here,” Rita Brasel said. “Grain elevator train cars used to block off Army Post Road, but we’d just go around to the south. But with the windmill parts …”
Compounding the problem for the Brasels and their neighbors is the lack of another way to get to their homes.
When the tiny development was built more than 40 years ago, there were two access roads. One gravel road to the north through floodplains, and one to the south over railroad tracks to Army Post Road.
In 1994, Polk County closed the north access after the 1993 floods.
Phil Meraz, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s rail regulation and analysis project coordinator, said trains blocking roadways is a growing problem in Iowa and across the country.
Five or six years ago, Meraz said, he received about three complaints a month.
“Now I get two or three a day,” he said. “From the DOT side of things, there’s nothing we can do.”
Iowa code says a train cannot block a crossing for more than 10 minutes. But a federal law supersedes state law when it come to trains.
The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1996 states that only the federal government has the jurisdiction to govern the movement and speeds of trains, Meraz said. However, the federal government is silent regarding train movement and speeds, he said.
Last winter, a train offloading wind turbine parts derailed, blocking the neighborhood for more than two-and-a-half hours.
“The school bus couldn’t get in to pick up the kids,” Rita Brasel said.
Carlisle police eventually forced the engineer to separate the train and wrote a ticket, she said.
It’s common for resident to ask local law enforcement to ticket train engineers for blocking crossings, Meraz said, but that isn’t a solution.
“The railroads know they can just get the tickets dismissed in court because of the federal law,” he said.
The wind turbine transfers stopped for about two months from Christmas through most of February, but earlier this month, Union Pacific trains blocked the road for more than an hour while off-loading wind turbine parts, the Brasels said.
Work at the distribution center has picked up each year since it opened. Union Pacific told neighbors the facility would be operational for 14 weeks in 2017, 20 weeks in 2018 and 26 weeks in 2019.
“They said they were going to run for 20 weeks in 2018, but it lasted eight months. That’s way more than just 20 weeks,” Brasel said.
The residents said they have reached out to Union Pacific and officials from Carlisle and Polk County for help finding a solution.
Contacted by a reporter, Supervisor Tom Hockensmith said he was unaware of the situation.
“If someone had told me that kids weren’t getting to school and people aren’t getting to work, then I’d be right on top of that immediately,” he said.
Hockensmith said he would ask the county attorney to look into what authority the county has force the railroad to stop blocking the road.
Kristen South with Union Pacific’s corporate communications office said the railroad was also unaware of the issue at the Wind 2 Rail distribution center.
“We want to be a good neighbor and we want to apologize for the inconvenience this has caused for the residents and businesses,” she said. “We are going to work with everyone on this.”