Fort Collins drivers frustrated by longer train delays get new tool to fight back



How to report a blocked train crossing The Coloradoan

The number of extra-long trains rumbling through Fort Collins and tying up major intersections for 15 minutes or more at a time continues to rise.

In January, traffic in the city was delayed by 47 trains known as “doubles” in railroad jargon. That was after 32 long trains rolled through in December and 16 in November, said Fort Collins Traffic Engineer Joe Olson.

City officials can’t do anything about the length of trains that traverse Fort Collins’ spine or the traffic headaches they cause. But they can report what they see to the Federal Railroad Administration, and they hope motorists and others frustrated by trains creeping through or stopping in intersections will do the same.

Now there’s a new avenue for doing just that.

The FRA has established an online portal for documenting delays at railroad crossings across the nation to collect data on the issue.

Using the reporting tool at, one may note the exact location of a crossing delay, the date it occurred, the cause — as in a moving or stopped train or gates that were down with no train present — and its length.

Witnesses may also report if they observed the train stop and start and whether first responders like ambulances and fire trucks were affected by the blockage. If pedestrians were seen climbing on or through train cars during the stoppage, the FRA wants to know about it.

Fort Collins officials are encouraging residents to fill out the online form, which is accessible by desktop computers and mobile devices, and supply the FRA with information on the impacts of train delays.

“People we’ve spoken to at the FRA tell us this is a way to get it on their radar,” Olson said.

FRA established the reporting portal for blocked railroad crossings in December. It will operate indefinitely as the agency seeks to better understand problems related to blockages, including potential safety issues.

“Railroads, states and local jurisdictions are best positioned to address blocked highway-rail grade crossings and I’ve asked them to work together to minimize unwanted impacts,” said FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory in a press release. “FRA expects that collecting this data will help us identify where chronic problems exist and better assess the underlying causes and overall impacts of blocked crossings — locally, regionally and nationwide.”

The information will be shared with stakeholders as a way to address issues, according to an FRA spokesperson. The country has an estimated 130,000 public railroad crossings.

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While the city has no authority over trains or their scheduling, it does work with railroad companies and local entities to find solutions to problems when possible, Olson said.

For example, building an overpass of Vine Drive and the parallel rail switching yard when Lemay Avenue is realigned will require coordinating with BNSF and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The $20 million project could be complete in 2021 if City Council designates more funding for it in the city’s 2021-22 budget.

Data show increasing delays

Trains measuring up to three miles long started showing up last year along the BNSF Railway line that runs along the north-south spine of Fort Collins. The line parallels College Avenue through much of the city, although it crosses College at Cherry Street and connects with a switching yard along East Vine Drive.

So far, all of the doubles running through Fort Collins have been made up of empty coal cars heading north to coal mines in Wyoming.

When a double works its way across Fort Collins, it gradually slows in preparation for the track’s curve across College Avenue and into the switching yard. The speed drop is evident as the train moves north.

Long-train blockages of the Drake Road crossing average 9 minutes, 11 seconds, Olson said. Similar delays have been measured at crossings south of Drake Road.

At the Prospect Road crossing, blockages average 12 minutes, 33 seconds. At Mulberry Street and the College/Cherry intersection, an average blockage is 15 minutes, 31 seconds.

Delays of 15 minutes or more are common along Vine Drive and its intersections with Linden Street, Lemay Avenue and Timberline Road.

The impact of a double train on traffic depends on the time of day it comes through. If it’s the middle of the day or the evening, the impact is “huge,” Olson said.

“If the train comes through at 5 p.m., it can take the rest of the rush hour to recover,” he said.

The doubles typically don’t stop. But when they do, they block several major east-west collector streets at the same time. Trouble follows.

In November, a 72-year-old woman was severely injured when she attempted to climb through the cars of a stopped train near the intersection of Mulberry and Mason streets and it started to move.

Witnessed told the Coloradoan the train was stopped for at least 10 minutes. Several people reportedly were seen climbing between cars during the delay.

Between long and average-length trains, blockages at crossings have noticeably increased in recent months.

The intersection of College and Cherry was blocked for more than 10 minutes 51 times in December and 57 times in January. In January 2019, the intersection was blocked longer than 10 minutes twice.

Tracking the trains

Trains and the traffic delays they cause have been part of life in Fort Collins for a long time.

Like many Fort Collins residents, Jim Haselmaier often thinks about trains as he drives or bikes around town, considering whether one might get in the way of his travels.

But he has a better idea than most about whether that might happen. Haselmaier and his wife, Kathy, created Train Alert, an automated system that sends notifications to followers of its website and Twitter feed when a train is detected on the BNSF Railway line.


To help people avoid traffic back-ups, Train Alert sends automated notices when a train is detected on the BNSF line that runs through Fort Collins. The Coloradoan

A camera/computer setup at Haselmaier’s house south of Harmony Road detects northbound and southbound trains. A camera recently placed on the roof of Schraders headquarters in north Fort Collins does the same.

Alerts include estimated arrival times for trains at major intersections along the line, such as Harmony, Horsetooth, Drake, Prospect and Mulberry. The idea is to help people plan for trains and not get caught in the traffic hassles they cause, Haselmaier said.

The system does not differentiate between long and “regular” trains. But if Haselmaier happens to be home when a double train rolls by, he’ll add that information to the system’s tweet.

As in tune as he is with BSNF train traffic, even Haselmaier has felt the impact of the long trains.

Recently, when a double coal train came through during the middle of the day, Haselmaier came upon eastbound Harmony Road and saw it was backed up nearly to Shields Street, a distance of almost a mile.

“When I saw that, I actually turned around and went down to Trilby and went around,” he said. “Because I knew getting through that Mason Street, railroad track, College Avenue section of Harmony Road was going to take forever.”

Haselmaier said his data on the impact of trains in Fort Collins is anecdotal. He said the city’s work on gathering hard data on how long railroad crossings are blocked clearly illustrates the issue.

Train Alert hopes to establish cameras at other train-and-traffic hotspots around town, such as Riverside and Lemay and Lemay and Vine Drive, to give residents a heads-up on train movements.

Just doing its job

In recent weeks, BNSF has run an average of seven to nine trains a day of various lengths through Fort Collins, railway spokesperson Joe Sloan stated in an email.

The number of trains varies depending on volume and market demands across the company’s network. The length of trains is determined by factors such as the commodity being shipped, location and customer demands.

“All train movements, across the network, are done to move products in the most efficient way possible,” Sloan said.

Empty coal trains move across most of BNSF’s subdivisions in Colorado. Fort Collins is part of the Front Range Subdivision, which runs from Denver to Guernsey, Wyoming.


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The line runs through Denver, Westminster, Broomfield, Louisville, Boulder, Longmont, Loveland and Wellington.

Long trains have not had much impact in Loveland, said City Engineer Jeff Bailey. But the situation there is different than in Fort Collins.

The BNSF crossing of U.S. Highway 34 is grade-separated, keeping trains and traffic from mixing.

“We get over 45,000 cars a day on U.S. 34,” Bailey said. “The fact that they aren’t stopping for a train, regardless of how frequent it is, is huge for us.”

Traffic stacks up a little bit more at arterial street crossings with double trains, but not significantly. Loveland is fortunate in that trains rarely stop there, he said.

In Longmont, the long trains can cause major traffic problems when they pass through, depending on the time of day, said Tyler Stamey, the city’s transportation engineering administrator.

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When a train crosses Ken Pratt Boulevard, which carries about 40,000 vehicles a day, around 5 p.m., traffic comes to a standstill, he said. Blockages average about 15 minutes.

“That’s a substantial impact,” Stamey said. “It can be an hour before we’re all the way recovered.”

Sloan acknowledged that motorists would prefer trains not cross roads during rush hour and other busy times. But trains, which have the right-of-way, operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

To hold a train in one location at the convenience of vehicle traffic would mean trains ahead and behind it also would be holding. The majority of road crossings on the rail network are at-grade.

“Grade-separated crossings eliminate vehicle traffic waiting for a train to pass through an at-grade crossing,” he wrote.

An FRA spokesperson said the agency has devoted significant resources toward the issue of blocked highway-rail grade crossings.

Administrator Batory recently sent letters to 160 railroads around the country asking them to assess their operations and determine ways to minimize blocked crossings, including considering train length.

The agency expects its blockage reporting portal will supply valuable information.

“Our ability to address this issue is only as effective as the data we collect,” Batory stated. “Therefore, we are hoping to engage citizens and all levels of government to help spread the word about this important tool.”

Track the trains

Interested on keeping tabs on trains as they travel through Fort Collins? These tools can help

FRA Blocked Crossing Incident Reporter

What: A Federal Railway Administration tool launched in December that allows the public and law enforcement to report train-caused blockages of crossings across the nation.


How to use it: Pull the tool up on your desktop or mobile web browser and follow the prompts to report a blockage. The website also has data on past reports. As of Feb. 24, 15 blockages had been logged in Fort Collins since the first was logged on Jan. 21.

Train Alert

What: Fort Collins resident Jim Haselmeir’s web-based tool alerts users to when a train is entering Fort Collins along the BNSF Railway line from the north and south.

Where: and

How to use it: Visit the website or Twitter profile to sign up to receive alerts on your preferred device.

Kevin Duggan is a senior columnist and reporter. Contact him at

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