Wauwatosa proposes plan to combat railroad safety issues

Oct. 21, 2015

Citing trespassing on railroad tracks as a pressing safety issue in Wauwatosa, City Administrator Jim Archambo said a proposal is under way to build a safe pedestrian crosswalk at North 74th Street to deter accidents.

Crossing railroad tracks illegally has been a longstanding issue in Wauwatosa, resulting in the death of at least three people in recent years.

"It's surprising we don't have more people having the unfortunate encounter with trains," Archambo said, of the area where the proposed crossing would be located. "It's so wide open that people randomly walk through there. You can't always move as quickly as you need to get out of the way."

There have been three train fatalities in Wauwatosa. A Longfellow Middle School student was struck by a train in February 2012 when crossing North 68th and West State streets. An Oak Creek man was killed by a freight train in August 2014 at North 61st and West State streets. And in November 2014, a 65-year-old man was killed by a train while walking south on 68th street.

The proposed site for the crosswalk — which would include crossing signals, gates and other safety features — is currently walked on by people randomly cutting across the area, Archambo said.

"What this is intended to do is coordinate a single, regulated crossing in that section," he said.

The tracks belong to Soo Line Railroad Co., a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The project would serve to significantly reduce trespassing between the 72nd Street roadway crossing and the Chancery Pub & Restaurant parking structure, according to the report.

The city is expected to submit preliminary engineering design plans for the proposed crossing to the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation by Feb. 28, 2016.

Traffic on the tracks

The report said heavy foot traffic near the tracks can be attributed to the nearby Village of Wauwatosa, home to approximately 125 businesses and located about two blocks west of 74th Street. Additionally, new apartment buildings, including The Reserve and the nearly completed The Reef Apartments, have been constructed along State Street.

Hart Park and all its amenities such as athletic fields, a senior center, walking trails and a playground, among other things, also add to the high volume of pedestrian traffic near the railroad crossings, according to the report.

"Given the propensity for pedestrians to take the shortest available route, many pedestrians trespass to get across the tracks," the report stated.

Further, the report stated pedestrians may not perceive the risks involved with trespassing.

"Research has established that humans underestimate the speed at which trains are traveling due to the size of the locomotive and their relative inexperience in observing and estimating the speed of trains compared to motor vehicles," the report said.

Sound concerns

Even if the crossing is installed, trains will not be allowed to sound horns as they travel through the crossing, Archambo said.

By default, trains must sound their horns in anticipation of crossings, said Archambo, but the city has filed for exemptions to the rule in the past, which will continue if the pathway is installed.

In recent years, train horns have been heard in Wauwatosa, but Archambo said it was a result of a lag in exemption renewals.

"They're so loud and also so frequent," Archambo said, adding if a train engineer sees something or someone on the tracks, they do sound their horn, regardless if a ban is in place.

About 25 freight trains travel through the area each day at a speed of 35 mph. Two Amtrack passenger trains per day operate on the line, also at 35 mph, according to the report.

Project plans

As proposed by the city, the crossing would be located at North 74th Street, between Harwood Avenue and 72nd Street. The pathway would be paved with an asphalt or concrete surface 8 to 10 feet wide.

Wauwatosa has proposed extending two walkways from State Street south to the crossing. The eastern walkway will stretch in a straight line from State Street toward the tracks, descend several steps and merge with the western walkway. The western walkway will descend toward the tracks via an ADA-compliant ramp and the two walkways will come together roughly 15 feet north of the north track, according to the report.

Archambo said the crossing's location is "logical" as nearby Hart Park already has a trail that comes close to the railroad tracks.

"It's sort of a logical connection between the trail on the south side and roughly Wauwatosa Avenue," he said.

Additionally, the city proposes to construct a 5- to 6-foot fence between State Street and the tracks extending from 72nd Street crossing the east corner of the Chancery retaining wall and from the west end of the Chancery parking structure to the Menomonee River.

Not all onboard

Soo Line Railroad Co., the Minneapolis-based company that operates the railroad tracks in Wauwatosa, was listed as in opposition of the proposed plan to install the crossing, according to the state report.

The report recommends the railroad company install and maintain a number of safety features including a concrete panel crossing surface, 12-inch LED automatic flashing lights with gates and two electronic bells, among other features.

A spokesman with Canadian Pacific said the railroad is reviewing the proposal, with public safety being a top priority.

The crossing would be paid for by tax incremental financing district No. 11, which covers the entirety of the State Street Station project.

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