Keeping a Belle of a Town on Track

Trains run right down the center of a main street in Bellevue, Iowa. As the railroad company moves to close several crossings and raise speeds, citizens are rattled -- and they're organizing.

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Bellevue, Iowa, sits as far east in Iowa as it can without falling into the Mississippi River and washing ashore in Illinois. It has only about 2300 residents, no large employers or major highways. You aren’t likely to pass it on your way to someplace else.

But if Bellevue rings a bell, it might be because of a terrible accident that occurred at its Heritage Days parade this past July 4.

That’s when a pair of grey horses pulling a buggy went out of control along a crowded parade route. It isn’t known how or why one horse was able partially to dislodge the bridle from its partner, but it did. Several occupants of the buggy jumped out and attempted to replace the rigging, without success, while the horses ran out of control. As the buggy careened down the road, its driver, Mardell Steines of neighboring Springbrook, Iowa, was thrown out. Observers attempted to restrain the horses for several blocks. Ultimately, the buggy tipped over and its remaining occupants were ejected. One of them, Mardell’s wife Janet Steines, was killed in the fall. In all, more than 25 people were injured in this accident, some seriously. One of the horses had to be destroyed as a result of multiple leg fractures.

In the days immediately following this accident, a fund was established for the victims, with a goal of raising $250,000. As of late August it had raised nearly the full amount.

Bellevue will be known to the wider public for this accident for awhile, until other headlines around the country take its place. Then, even as a lawsuit proceeds against Mardell Steines for negligence, few outside the region will likely follow the developments closely. 

I’ll be one of those following the case, and everything else in the news about the town. In February, my husband and I bought a house in Bellevue and we plan to move there next summer.

In the five days we spent in Bellevue in August, I thought people would still be repeating stories about the parade accident and questioning the wisdom of letting children scramble for candy so near the hooves of large capricious animals. People did just that, when I raised the issue. But the consensus was the accident had been a freak thing; people are not clamoring to discontinue the parade or ban horses from it. The impassioned conversation in town was about something else, something that affects everyone in Bellevue.

If another calamity befalls residents of the town, odds are it will come not by buggy, but by rail.

Julianne Couch
There’s no wiggle room along 2nd Street St. in Bellevue, Iowa. Train tracks run, and trains travel, where the median or center turn-lane would be.

Bellevue has a railroad track that for well over a century has run right down the middle of Second Street. That’s the street our house is on. The Abstract of Title for the house notes that in 1878 the owners of the lot (the house wouldn’t be built for two more years) granted the Clinton and Dubuque Railroad right away for consideration of $48.15. Presumably everyone else in town along the route did the same.

The track runs down the road in the space where a left turn lane or median might be situated. There is no buffer space on either side of the track. From my front porch I look out and see lawn, sidewalk, road, railroad track; road, sidewalk, lawn across the street.

When I describe the railroad track to my friends here in Wyoming, naturally they ask me if I got a really good deal on the house. I echo what most in Bellevue say, that after a few days you really don’t even notice the trains. First, there aren’t that many of them, only about half a dozen daily. They travel slowly – their agreement with the city keeps speeds to about 10 miles per hour. (This is a Class 3 track – they could go up to 40 mph but have agreed not to.) They don’t blow their horns at every crossing, because Bellevue is a “quiet zone.”  Low train speeds result in a low safety-risk index, which allows that designation. The trains run on continuous rail, meaning they don’t shake and rattle down the tracks. Instead, they glide almost in the manner of a tourist trolley, softly clattering.

Bellevue Herald-Leader
A Canadian Pacific employee climbs back on a northbound freight stopped at the south edge of Bellevue, Iowa. The tracks have run down the middle of a residential and commercial street since 1880, when city officials granted the railroad permanent access.

But now Bellevue is facing changes with the trains that common sense says invite a higher level of risk into town. Canadian Pacific, which acquired the railroad’s assets in 2008, is negotiating with the city to double train speeds through town and to close seven of the 15 crossings. Admittedly, that’s a lot of crossings in a town of this size. In return the city wants CP to improve the remaining crossings and keep the whistles stifled.

Railroads are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The fact is, municipalities do not control train speed and have little bargaining power.

“The railroad,” as it’s referred to locally, says the safest way for trains to proceed through town is to eliminate most crossings and blow their whistles the whole time. They hold all the cards. They could do it. But this plan would cut the town in half lengthwise. For now, it’s not an option anyone would seriously consider.

Bellevue Herald-Leader
Faye Francis of Bellevue is organizing a group called Citizens for Community Safety, aimed at issues with the Canadian Pacific tracks that run through town. “It’s David and Goliath, and you know how that story ends,” she told city leaders. “I think this town can go up against the CP.”

Upping the speed limit to 20 miles per hour (so that trains can be doing 25 mph by the time they hit the final crossing) and closing some crossings looks to be the compromise both the city and railroad are pursuing. As the city council takes public comments, most of those speaking out are vehemently opposed to these changes. Concerns range from worry about toxic chemicals spilling during a potential derailment to plain old battle fatigue from more than 100 years of argument. In the aftermath of its public comment session, the city will revisit the Memorandum of Understanding it is negotiating with the railroad. Yet, officials still expect some changes could start as early as this month, September 2010.

In a guest editorial in the Bellevue Herald-Leader dated August 12, 2010, city council members wrote: “As in all negotiations there has been give and take. The City of Bellevue has to close some crossings. The CP has to fix the remaining crossings. The speed of trains will increase but the maximum will be set less than the FRA would allow. The quiet zone will stay in place. The quiet zone risk index will actually improve by 14 percent. In the eyes of the FRA, the citizens of Bellevue will be 14 percent safer after this agreement than they are today.”

I have no reason to doubt their risk analysis methods, but people don’t behave on paper the way they do in reality.

No one wants to see Bellevue back in the news because a collision between a swiftly moving train and a slowly moving driver or pedestrian has resulted in a terrible accident. If a train in motion at these higher speeds cannot stop in time to avoid a collision, disaster awaits. No one wants to see fast trains trumpeting two long blasts and one short one, plus a blast of 15-20 seconds before each crossing. If that were the case, the vibration really could rattle Bellevue right off its perch above the Mississippi to wash ashore in Illinois. Stranger things have happened.

Sara Millhouse and the Bellevue Herald-Leader provided some information for this story.

 

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