For most of her life, Alison Lewis had lived on Salt Lake City’s east side, where train crossings were an afterthought.
Then she moved to Glendale on the west side, and, suddenly, those tracks were very much on her mind.
Hopping on her bike and pedaling to work at the University of Utah seemed like a wise, healthy, eco-friendly commuting alternative.
One day, Lewis reached a rail crossing blocked by a train. The wait dragged on for 40 minutes.
“I discovered at that time the challenge of living west of the train tracks,” she said. Sure, Lewis could have taken another route, but the next best option led to a road with on- and off-ramps that mixes with cars.
“That makes it very dangerous and scary,” Lewis said, “especially if it’s at night.”
Her frustration extends to motorists, who have to sit in traffic at crossing for anywhere from several minutes to more than an hour, and pedestrians, who, weary of waiting, have resorted to climbing over the stopped trains to cross. The trains also can block public safety vehicles.
Commuters and residents yearn for solutions while sharing space with the rails. Though some improvements have come, there still aren’t enough pedestrian bridges or alerts to avoid the crossings when the trains stop.
West-siders also are disproportionately exposed to noise from train horns and vibrations. They have dealt with this issue for decades, but it still can be hard.
City Council member Alejandro Puy, who represents the Glendale, Poplar Grove and Fairpark neighborhoods, receives constant complaints about the long wait times, especially at the 800 West, 900 West and 1000 West crossings. Those areas experience high levels of traffic congestion because they are close to a rail yard, where train cars are shuffled and sorted for their various destinations.
“It really is eye-opening to see how people are frustrated with the train to the point that they will risk their lives,” Puy said. “You don’t know when it’s going to move, and when it moves, it moves fast.”
Finding out ‘how bad it is’
Although the tracks existed before much of the housing, it doesn’t mean these challenges shouldn’t be addressed, Puy said. It’s not an easy task, but it needs to start somewhere. And that somewhere might be collecting data to see the breadth and depth of the problem.
“Sometimes, because we don’t see it,” the first-year council member said, “we don’t realize how bad it is.”
Puy is seeking ways to fund cameras at rail crossings so commuters can check the live feeds before heading out and know whether trains are moving or stopped. Cameras also would offer evidence of the extent of the issue, he said, by showing the close calls train conductors see.
The Federal Railroad Administration has phone numbers people can call to report whenever the crossings affect them. That data is used to request funding.
“The effects are there,” Puy said, “but we need to prove it to some decision-makers, and that’s what I think is going to bring change.”
Danny Brewer, a locomotive engineer at Union Pacific, said he witnesses at least one close call a month.
“We just need to get the word out that when those gates are down, it’s no trespassing,” he said. “Stay out of that area. It’s a dangerous area.”
The challenge is growing. During the past decade, trains that used to be a mile long have morphed into nearly three-mile-long behemoths as the railroads maximize capacity to improve fuel efficiency, blocking four or five streets at a time.
Extended delays can last from 30 minutes to two hours — if technical issues arise or rail routes are changed. When trains were shorter, a conductor could walk to the crossing to separate both sides and let cars and pedestrians pass. “But now the trains are so long, it takes him a while to get back there,” Brewer said. “And by the time he gets back there, we’re ready to move.”
Brewer, who is also the legislative director for SMART Transportation Union, agrees that more overpasses and underpasses are needed.
And, like Puy, he sees cameras as the best way to let commuters know a crossing is blocked and to track accidents, a starting point to gain federal money for bridges similar to one on 300 North near 500 West. Once completed, this pedestrian and cyclist overpass will help students reach West High and west-siders funnel into downtown.
For its part, the city also views bridges, tunnels or reconfigured freeway interchanges as remedies for the long waits at rail crossings.
Another option is a train trench like one built in Reno. The idea is to lower the rails below the grade level and then build bridges over the trench. So the trains run underneath while commuters cross unimpeded above the tracks.
This is “a high-cost, high-impact alternative with significant changes to the rail lines,” according to a report Salt Lake City released this year. The trench is also one of the solutions proposed by advocates in “The Rio Grande Plan.”
Salt Lake City is applying for a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) federal grant, which would allow a three-year study of the feasibility of these solutions. After the research, the city could seek construction funds for the recommended designs.
Union Pacific has been working with Salt Lake City’s Transportation Department to secure the grant, said Mike Jaixen, the railway’s senior communications manager.
“A number of concepts have been floated,” he said, “and if this grant is awarded, the city can then evaluate each to determine which concepts should be developed further.”
As of now, Union Pacific trains continue to have fluid schedules, Jaixen said, that shift as business levels and operating conditions warrant.
That means blocked crossings at times.
While Union Pacific tries to “minimize that frustration” Jaixen said, “...it’s very tough to eliminate completely.”
In addition to Union Pacific’s efforts, short-line company Patriot Rail is working to move a rail yard in Poplar Grove farther west to property owned by Suburban Land Reserve, a real estate arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The relocation would reduce up to 90% of traffic backups at grade crossings at 800 West, 900 West and 1000 West, along with six other crossings downtown. The move also would ease congestion, improve air quality and reduce noise in west-side neighborhoods.
Those plans are currently in legal limbo, however, after the Utah Inland Port Authority announced plans to acquire the vacant church property instead.
“Closing that rail yard will mean that the trains don’t have to do that back and forth and [blocking] three intersections,” Puy said. “That is huge.”
What about quiet zones?
Between 1,500 and 2,000 residents live adjacent to tracks and are affected by train whistles every day.
“It’s a very serious impact to the quality of life and the livability in an area,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, comparing the strength of the horn sounds to jackhammers and low-flying helicopters.
Decades ago, the city invested in engineering technology to quiet the horns. But three crossings — on 200 South, Navajo, and Orange streets — still require whistles for 15 to 20 seconds, Mendenhall said, and they blare about 30 times a day.
The city is working with Union Pacific to determine designs that could silence the whistles.
Utah’s capital is still trying to undo the inequalities brought by redlining practices, Mendenhall said. “They’re the last ones and it’s one of many steps, but it’s wonderful that we’re finally going to have a quiet west side when it comes to the trains.”
Better neighborhood conditions
Years ago, Maria Garciaz’s children used to wait up to 30 minutes for a train to cross to get to West High from Fairpark. That’s why she welcomes the walkway bridge coming to 300 North and 500 West.
Garciaz, who is also the CEO of NeighborWorks, a nonprofit that strives to revitalize neighborhoods, believes Union Pacific has been a good partner on initiatives such as the quiet zones and walkways, but more could be done.
When trains are backing into rail yards, there’s a strong vibration throughout the neighborhoods, Garciaz said. “If you grow up in the area, you start to get used to it, but should we have to get used to it?”
Garciaz also believes that there should be a designated place — similar to a bus stop — where people can sit and wait for the trains to pass. “If there are elderly people that want to cross or if there’s a mother with children, even if they have to wait for 10 minutes,” she said, “a place to sit that is a nice area, not just an ugly metal bench, would be nice.”
West-siders know freight trains are not leaving the neighborhoods anytime soon, she said, but rail companies can work with neighbors to determine best practices moving forward.
“One of the things I’ve learned about west-siders is that we want to put our issues on the table. But we’re also good about coming up with solutions,” she said. “And I think we’re reasonable in terms of what we think can and cannot happen.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.