Drivers beg for relief from train crossing delays near Belen

Jarales Road train crossing has been subject of lawmaker & community concern for more than 11 years

jarales-road-train-blocking

JARALES, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a well-known problem. An intersection south of Albuquerque, where around one-hundred different trains pass through every day, blocking the road and delaying drivers sometimes for more than 30 minutes.

Lawmakers have been talking about the issue for more than a decade, but still, nothing’s been done. Some neighbors in Jarales now say they’ve reached a boiling point, but the state says they’ll have to wait even longer before anything can be done.

The train has always been an audible neighboring presence next to the small community of Jarales, which sits south of Belen. Even with the loud train horns, many still love the area for its relative “peace and quiet.”

“It’s a nice, quiet community,” said Dean Jaramillo, a lifelong Jarales resident.

Jarales has seen a changing dynamic over the years though. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has continued to increase its train capacity at the Belen rail yard.

“We have trains 24-7,” said Jaramillo.

BNSF’s Belen hub is a critical site for cross-country rail freight. Roughly 100 trains go through Belen each day, stopping mainly to fuel up and head out on the Southern Transcon line, which connects southern California to Chicago, Illinois.

“It’s nice to see the trains, it’s nice to see how the railroad employs people,” said Jarales.

While Jaramillo and others say they appreciate the railroad’s economic presence, they also say the train traffic is wearing on them. Every day, drivers like Jaramillo say they’re getting stuck in their cars, waiting for trains to pass through or get off the tracks. Most of the time, drivers get stopped where the train crosses Jarales Road, otherwise known as “New Mexico 109,” a state highway.

“All hours of the day,” said a life-long Jarales resident who spoke to KRQE News 13 while stuck waiting for passing train traffic. “Yeah, they pass one right after the other.”

The Jarales community relies on Jarales Road as its main route in and out of Belen.

“It’s always blocked up,” said Kathy, who’s been living in Jarales for more than two decades.

Steve Ferguson also lives near the tracks. He says along with the train whistles, the traffic is frustrating.

“Oh it’s intense!” said Ferguson. “It’s just overwhelming, loud, and every 24 hours, that’s about a train every 15 minutes.”

Drivers also say they keep waiting longer periods of time for trains to clear out of the middle of the road. Many local residents claim the trains will sometimes park on the tracks, moving forward and backward to switch lines as they make room for trains in the Belen rail yard. Three sets of tracks into the Belen rail yard now cross Jarales Road.

“Sometimes they’ll get four or five trains in succession through there,” said Ferguson. “There’s been as much as half an hour of a train stopped on the tracks.”

The problem is obvious even from the roadside. If you don’t see trains parked on the track, many drivers will see a sign with a phone number to call if a train is sitting on the tracks for more than 10 minutes. Some neighbors said they think calling to complain is a waste of time. There are no state or federal laws putting a time limit on trains blocking intersections.

“The person on the other end of the phone just tells us to hold on tight,” said Jaramillo.

“I call them and they still don’t do nothing about it,” said another Jarales man.

The train crossing isn’t just a problem neighbors complain about either. Lawmakers have been worried about it for more than a decade.

In 2005, the Valencia County Fire Department found the jammed up crossing was delaying emergency response times upwards of 10 minutes. The county discussed the idea of studying the intersection further, but never did.

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, the state legislature tried to set aside millions of dollars toward studying, designing and rebuilding the intersection. Local legislators filed multiple $2 to $3 million capital outlay requests for the train crossing. A New Mexico House representative also filed two different $3-million appropriations bills. Every effort failed.

The fix for the intersection is to build a railroad overpass, or “grade separation,” to where cars and trains would no longer cross in the same path. That fix, which would likely be an overpass for cars, is expected to cost millions of dollars. It’s also a cost that the railroad company isn’t willing to pay for on its own.

“We think that would cost between probably 12 and 15 million dollars to do,” said Loren Hatch, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Jarales Road.

“The truth is the DOT doesn’t have that money to pay for a project like that right now,” said Hatch. “They (BNSF) have indicated that they would be willing to possibly partner with us.”

While a partnership could mean shared funding for the cost of a railroad overpass, BNSF hasn’t committed any money toward the project. NMDOT says it will meet with BNSF in December to talk about the Jarales Road train crossing. It’s unclear if anything will come out of it. Despite the financial obstacles, the state agency insists it won’t forget about Jarales Road.

“I’m optimistic that we can resolve this, it might not be something we can resolve next week, or next year, but we’ll get there,” said Hatch.

NMDOT’s words are not exactly what neighbors want to hear, again.

“We’re being delayed for too long,” said Jaramillo.

For now, Jaramillo wonders how long it will be before another driver gets hit while trying to beat the train by speeding around the crossing arms. Five cars have been hit since 1985, resulting in various injuries but no deaths. The most recent car-train crash occurred in November 2014.

Jaramillo says he’s also concerned that a future traffic jam caused by a parked train could keep an ambulance or a fire truck from getting to an emergency where minutes count.

“Somebody could actually lose their life and I hope they take that into deep consideration, and get some funding to build an overpass,” said Jaramillo.

The Valencia County Fire Chief for the Jarales-area recently said that typically when emergency vehicles are blocked on Jarales Road, they’ll either re-route, or make an emergency call to the railroad to move the train. So far, the department says it hasn’t had any critical life-threatening delays.

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