116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - The extra time we seem to spend waiting for trains to pass or bracing the china until the room stops rattling might not just be your imagination.
Trains are getting longer and more frequent, according to federal and state data as well as information from railroads.
At the notorious First Avenue railroad crossing on the southeast side of Iowa City, backed up traffic stretches past schools and through traffic lights several times a day while Iowa Interstate Railroad chugs past. Without a nearby cut-through, the at-times 100-car-long trains have been causing headaches - figuratively and literally - for motorists, local businesses and nearby residents for years.
While Iowa Interstate said trains vary by day and it didn't have any specific figures, the company's total train miles increased 28 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
"It's an active set of tracks, for sure," Seth Owens said. "Sometimes it is a really long time. Sometimes it is less. I've definitely been there more than 10 minutes before."
Owens is the volunteer coordinator for the Free Medical Clinic, a few blocks from the tracks. Trains cause patients and volunteers to miss appointments, he added.
"It seems to be a valid excuse since it happens so much," he said.
Mary Gehris, who lives near the tracks just east of the crossing, said she is concerned the increase is disrupting quality of life.
"When I sit on the porch, I can't even hear myself think," she said. "You can't hear anything when the trains go by."
Some relief is on the way, though, at least for this location.
Backed by federal aid and local money, Iowa City plans to get a long-discussed overpass project rolling this spring.
The $11 million endeavor eventually will carry the train over the road. The city will seek construction bids this spring and begin work in April or May, said Jason Havel, a civil engineer for Iowa City. It should last two construction seasons, with completion in fall 2016, he said.
"I don't think there's anywhere that has the same pressure to do something about it," Havel said. "The high volume of traffic held up where trains go through and without another way to get around the tracks without going a ways out of the way - that's the incentive to get this one done."
It should ease delays for travelers and business, although it won't stop the noise, and some shops have expressed concern about the design.
Other lines in Eastern Iowa, also are experiencing increases, according to the federal data. Iowa Northern Railroad has seen an 89 percent increase in rail miles, and CRANDIC has seen an uptick of 9 percent.
Union Pacific reports traffic in the downtown corridor in Cedar Rapids has increased by a few cars per train, including up to 50 or 60 cars on transfers between its Beverly Yard and North Yard. The railroad running east-west through the south part of Cedar Rapids has seen traffic climb from 41 trains a day in 2012 up to 47 a day through the third quarter of 2014, UP spokesman Mark Davis said in an email.
Davis said five of six of UP's business groups are growing. Among them, agricultural product volume is up 14 percent, industrial products are up 12 percent, and intermodal shipments carrying consumer goods have risen 13 percent, he said.
Tammy Nicholson, director of rail transportation for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said volumes vary, but the biggest difference is the traffic flow, which has changed when and where more rail traffic is seen. In Cedar Rapids, for example, freight for the ethanol industry - corn being hauled in and ethanol shipped out - is a business that has grown, she said.
Trains are reaching up to 125 cars in length, she said.
"For rail trends, we anticipate the rail industry will continue to see robust traffic for the foreseeable future with respect to all the railroads in the Cedar Rapids area," she said.
Rail crossings generally shouldn't be blocked for longer than 10 minutes, according to Iowa Code, but there are some exceptions, such as if a train is disabled or for safety reasons.
An 800 number from phones at crossings can be used to report problems, while documenting time, date, location and train number, Nicholson said.
Local law enforcement also can issue citations, but it is rarely effective, according to the rail office website. While complaints about increased traffic are minimal, the rail office works with railroads on accommodations to issues when they arise, Nicholson said.