At a Crossroads: Skamania Landing residents fed up with railroad crossing delays

Stopped BNSF Railway trains spark safety, mobility concerns

timestamp icon
category icon Latest News, News, Public Safety

Skamania Landing is a small community of about 60 residences, located about 15 miles east of Washougal on a narrow peninsula along the Columbia River.

Two Skamania County roads, which intersect two BNSF Railway crossings, serve as the community’s only access points.

It is at these points that the community finds itself at a literal crossroads, wondering if somebody is going to die before their pleas affect the change they desperately want to see.

Skamania Landing residents say the frequency and duration of train stops, which block both of the community’s road-crossings, have escalated in recent months, causing profound inconveniences and jeopardizing public safety.

“We have people late to work, doctor appointments, the airport, and school,” said Skamania Landing resident Cindy Schmid-Potter. “It’s become a real big thing. And we’ve had three incidents in the past two to three months where emergency services were delayed to residents who needed medical care.”

The residents have reached out to Skamania County leaders. They’ve tried to contact their state legislators. And they have bombarded BNSF officials with hundreds of phone calls and emails.

So far, they say, nothing has worked.

“It’s disrupted our lives,” said Schmid-Potter, a Skamania Landing Owners Association (SLOA) board member. “It’s a daily worry for all of us. We’re at the point now of really being very frightened, a ‘What’s going to happen next?’ kind of thing. What we’re looking for from (BNSF Railway) is to acknowledge that we have a problem here and do its very best to remedy the problem for us.”

Residents say BNSF ‘prioritizes profit over community welfare’

SLOA members have determined the most likely cause of the disruptions is “a regulatory void at the federal level regarding blocked crossings, leaving us vulnerable to prolonged disruptions,” according to Schmid-Potter.

“We suspect that the economic incentives favoring longer trains exacerbate our plight, with (BNSF) prioritizing profit over community welfare,” she added. “The issues of blocked crossings and rail safety that we face in Skamania Landing are part of a larger nationwide problem.”

Residents have limited legal recourse to force BNSF Railway to change its behavior, traffic patterns or train length, according to SLOA President Chuck Kite.

“Even though infrastructure bill funds were awarded to Washougal to create an underpass at the 32nd Street BNSF crossing, given the gridlock in Congress on a whole host of issues, I’m not hopeful that this situation will change at the federal level,” Kite stated in a February message to community members.

“The freight train derailment and toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio, got a lot of attention, but according to news reports, the railroad companies have continued to use their lobbying power to block changes to their operations that might increase public safety,” Kite stated. “Similarly, nothing came of the 2016 Union Pacific derailment oil spill and fire near Mosier, Oregon. To its ‘credit,’ BNSF has improved its right-of-way, replaced several old bridges, lengthened sidings, maintained track, etc., but it seems that has only made it possible for them to put together longer trains.”

The problem has persisted despite numerous federal, state and local proposals and laws because “the freight rail industry wields enormous political and legal power,” according to a 2023 New York Times article.

“I was a Port of Skamania commissioner for almost 10 years, (so I’ve seen that BNSF) has their own set of rules that they live and die by when ports and local entities try to work with them,” said state Rep. Kevin Waters (R-17th District). “They have a lot of power.”

Courts have thrown out state laws seeking to punish rail companies for blocking traffic, ruling that only the federal government can regulate railway crossings.

Waters said he will personally reach out to BNSF Railway’s public relations department to seek answers for the Skamania Landing residents.

“I think the best thing is if they could just do scheduled stops,” Waters said of the railroad company. “‘(The residents could request) the hours of 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., or whatever they are looking for, and say, ‘Don’t stop on the tracks at those times. Please, can we at least have a discussion about it?’ and see if BNSF is even open to it.”

Waters said he has friends who live in Skamania Landing, and is well aware of the train issues and residents’ concerns.

“It has been a problem forever. I feel for the residents. I know it’s frustrating,” Waters said. “I’m frustrated just hearing all this because it’s like, ‘Gosh, we have to do something.’”

Skamania Landing residents say they feel BNSF Railway does not care about the upsets to their daily lives.

In an August 2022 email a BNSF employee sent to Schmid-Potter, the railway representative put the blame on local government officials.

“(They) are public crossings, which the local authority is responsible for maintaining,” the BNSF employee stated in the email. “The best solution is for the local authority to build a grade separation — i.e. an overpass — to separate road and rail traffic. BNSF’s public projects team works with local governments to help advance such projects. If additional crossings are closed as part of the grade separation project, it triggers additional mandatory contributions from the railroad. If you are experiencing frequent delays at the crossing, one option might be to report future events to the Federal Railroad Administration via the agency’s web page dedicated to collecting reports of blocked crossings.”

The BNSF representative added that, regarding emergency access, “during an emergency, such as a medical event or fire, first responders would contact BNSF dispatch and the train crew would break the train to provide access for emergency vehicles.”

BNSF Railway representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Post-Record in time for this newspaper’s print deadline.

The BNSF website states that a wide range of factors, including conditions related to equipment and the railroad tracks, as well as weather events, can cause train schedules to change.

“As a result of those changing conditions and for security reasons, freight train schedules are not released to the public,” the website states. “Nonetheless, at BNSF we do our best to limit the amount of time any crossing is blocked on a mainline track. Our business and our customers depend on BNSF to keep our trains moving. When our trains experience a situation that forces them to stop, BNSF works to correct or resolve the situation as quickly as possible to resume the safe movement of trains.”

Bridge issue complicates situation

Skamania Landing does have a one-lane wooden truss bridge accessing the eastern edge of the community, but Skamania County has downgraded bridge’s weight capacity from 10 tons to 4 tons, a decision Skamania Landing residents fear will prevent heavy emergency vehicles such as fire engines from accessing the community if the west entrance of Skamania Landing is blocked by a train.

Skamania County Public Works Director David Waymire recently informed the residents that he has granted emergency medical service and fire officials permission to use the bridge during an emergency.

“In the event of an actual emergency, the load rating can be ignored and they may do what they need to do,” Waymire told The Post-Record. “‘I’ve met with the community members out there; I’m trying to be transparent and let them know what’s going on. I also have reached out to (BNSF) to let them know that we have a load rating on that bridge and ask that they try not to block the other side. I heard (back) as much as I would have expected. They said they would pass it up the chain and let us know, and I never heard back again.”

Waymire said Skamania County is attempting to find funding sources to repair the bridge. Waters said that he plans to advocate for the bridge project during the Washington State Legislature’s next 2024 session and hopes he can bring some funding back to Skamania County.

“We would like to do some repairs to get it back up to 14-ton rating; it was rated at 10 (tons) before this last change,” Waymire said. “The main piece is finding the funding for it and then getting it done because we don’t have the tax base for that kind of project. There’s not a whole lot else we can do until we can secure some funding. I was clear upfront with the (Skamania Landing residents) that it would take multiple years to get to a good resolution, because we don’t want to put a (bandage) on this. We want a longer-term solution.”

Stopped train delays EMS service

On the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2023, Skamania Landing resident Harry Newcomb noticed that his live-in mother-in-law, Joyce Shapiro, who had suffered a heart attack less than two weeks earlier, did not look well.

“She was pretty gray, and was kind of in and out of sleep because she was weak,” Newcomb said. “It was obvious that something needed to be done.”

Newcomb called 911 at 8 p.m. Four minutes later, he received a call from Skamania County paramedics, who informed him that a train was blocking both roads and that they couldn’t get to his home.

“I was kind of like, ‘OK. I don’t know what we’re going to do here. We’re not in too critical (of a) condition, I guess,’” he said. “I didn’t know how much blood was lost. This time, we weren’t dealing with a heart attack, necessarily, but she needed to get (to a medical facility).”

The paramedics called Newcomb again at 9:14 p.m. to let him know that the train had moved and that they could get through. They took Shapiro to Vancouver, where PeaceHealth doctors treated her for internal bleeding.

“(I was) angry with the scenario, but you can’t do anything about it,” Newcomb said. “It’s like, ‘Whoa, (is her health) going to turn for the worse? If it does, what do we do? Load her in the car and try to hand her across the tracks to the paramedics?’ I mean, that’s your only option. There’s no place you can put a helicopter here.”

Shapiro said she managed to stay conscious during the hour-long wait and “was lively enough to at least chuckle about it.”

“I said, ‘It’s a good thing I’m not having a heart attack,’” she said. “I knew I needed to get to the hospital right away, but they’re at least not going to pick up a dead patient after they’ve waited for an hour to get across the tracks. But it could have been worse (if the delay had been longer). The fact is, as long as I was losing blood, the situation was becoming more critical because my hemoglobin was dropping. (I had to receive) five units of blood before I was back on track.”

Waiting for a train to move during a medical emergency is “a helpless feeling,” Shapiro said.

“Somebody has control of your life at a point in time that it’s important to you to not be trapped,” she said, “and you feel trapped.”

Skamania EMS & Rescue Superintendent Ann Leuders said emergency response delays caused by train blockages do not happen often.

“While not frequent, it does remain a potential issue we are aware of on an ongoing basis,” Leuders said. “Access can get complicated when certain situations present themselves to us, but we do our best to work through it safely for patients and providers and as quickly as possible.

“These situations are dynamic, and what actions we’ve been able to take are varied based on the situation presented by different requests for service. Over the years, we have been able to (gain) access in a myriad of ways, working with BNSF crews through our dispatch and with their (local workers) when available.”

Residents take matters into their own hands

Skamania Landing residents Sharon Habluetzel and Sandy Wilson, both 77 years old, were stopped by a train at the community’s west entrance while returning to their homes from Portland at around 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2. They were quickly joined by several other drivers.

About 10 to 15 minutes later, one of the residents called BNSF Railway to report the blockage and was told that the train would be cleared “in 10 minutes,” according to Habluetzel.

When the train hadn’t moved 30 minutes later, they called BNSF again and were told there had been “an incident with a train down the road,” Wilson said. “They couldn’t tell us when the crossing would be open again because they weren’t able to move anything.”

At that point, Wilson and Habluetzel decided to take matters into their own hands.

“We’d been gone all day and wanted to be home,” Habluetzel said. “The last communication we received (indicated that BNSF) had no idea when the train was going to be moved.”

“We decided to park our car and climb through the train,” Wilson said. “(We slid between the space where) the trains buckled together — there were handrails — and then jumped down. We weren’t the only ones. Later on, I went back to get my car and I saw there were three other (abandoned) cars there.”

Once they were on the other side of the train, Wilson called for a neighbor to pick them up and take them home.

“We tried to be as safe as we could be,” Wilson said. “I did look down the tracks. I was careful. I was cognizant that I had done this before and Sharon hadn’t. It’s not that high, and there’s a railing to climb on. I do know that that is a very bad thing to do. I wouldn’t do it in front of children. I don’t think you should teach a kid to climb over a train.”

They later learned that the train sat at the crossing for nearly two hours before moving along.

“The ‘train world,’ it’s their own little world, really,” Wilson said. “One of the old sayings when I was younger went, ‘We don’t have to care. We’re the phone company.’ (It feels like BNSF) doesn’t have to care because they’re the railroad.”

“I’m very pro-train. I’m a ‘waver.’ I will take the (engineers) cookies. I appreciate the trains,” she added. “I do believe they need to adjust what they’re doing, but I don’t believe (BNSF) will do anything about it.”

Bypassing blocked trains is nothing new for Wilson, who said that she’s done it “about 10 times now.”

“I walk the neighborhood, so I’ve dealt with the trains a lot,” Wilson said. “I walk the Butler Loop Road up by the school and come back down at Skamania Landing Road, and if the train is parked, it’ll be blocking that entrance. I have gone under the bridge in the summer. I prefer to crawl under the trestle (at the west crossing) but if the water’s too high, (I can’t). And I wouldn’t do it in the dark at night unless we had a flashlight or something.”

On March 12, during a conversation with The Post-Record, Schmid-Potter asked Wilson and Habluetzel if they would climb through a stopped train again in the future.

“You never know,” Habluetzel replied.