Railroad Holdups Frustrate Drivers, Pedestrians and Cyclists

By Nancy Tannler

Portland is set to receive $500,000 in federal grant money that will be used to solve some of the railroad crossing issues in inner SE Portland. This money comes from a $570 million grant to the Federal Railroad Administration as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The grant became a reality thanks to Representative Suzanne Bonamici and the persistence of the SE Portland Railroad Action Group, made up of members of the Central Eastside Industrial Council and Hosford-Abernethy and Brooklyn Neighborhood Associations. The action group began raising awareness a few years ago with a petition asking the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) to address the frequent train blockages that trap drivers and cyclists waiting to cross the lines.
In 2021 Union Pacific changed their operations by tripling the length of their trains. Now the average train can be 9,000-15,000 feet long, equivalent to 1.8-2.8 miles. There are 15 crossings along the rail line through inner SE Portland. They are often blocked while the trains wait to be decoupled and unloaded. Wait times have been clocked anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
The scope of this problem does not happen in most other large cities. It happens here due in part to the size of the Brooklyn Rail Yard, which is only 4,200 feet long. The numbers make it plain to see that the infrastructure at Brooklyn Rail Yard was not ready for these longer trains. Segments of the train have to be uncoupled and moved to side racks while they are being unloaded, causing the intersections to be blocked for long periods of time.
Motorists, pedestrians and cyclists all get frustrated waiting. Sometimes they try to out-maneuver the trains by going down the street the wrong way, speeding through nearby neighborhoods. Pedestrians and cyclists have been known to cut in front of or through stopped trains.
PBOT, TriMet, the city, Union Pacific, neighbors and businesses are all weighing in on the problems the freight trains are causing. It is imperative for its health that the city improve the flow of traffic at these crossings by decreasing carbon emissions from idling cars and the fine and ultra-fine particulates spewed into the atmosphere by diesel trains. This is one of the worst areas in Portland for particulate in the air.
Hannah Schafer, PBOT Communications, said the grant money will be used to begin the study to determine what rail crossings are the worst, how to solve the problems and how much it will cost. With the city budget is already stretched thin, Schafer assumes they will need to apply to the federal government for more funds.
Bill Burgel, an engineer who worked in the railroad industry for 45 years, put together a PowerPoint presentation that offers some experienced solutions to the problem. Burgel suggests the easiest thing to fix is the elevator at the Bob Stacy Bike/Pedestrian crossing over the rail tracks near the Clinton St./SE 12th Ave. MAX Station for pedestrians and cyclists. There are 120 stairs to climb making it difficult for most bikers to carry their bikes over it. PBOT’s Dylan Rivera said it has been hard to keep the outdoor elevator working but they are attempting to fix it.
As for motorists, one suggested solution, estimated at less than $200,000, is to create an escape route for cars southbound on SE 11th Ave. to allow for a circle back to northbound SE 12th Ave. when the trains are stopped here. This would require the acquisition of a small portion of private property and the use of two lots (2637 and 2536) which are owned by the City of Portland.
Brooklyn Yard covers 110 acres with rail lines that extend from SE Haig St. to Willsburg Junction by the Milwaukie Expressway. Burgel’s presentation shows that it would be possible for Union Pacific to make improvements to these southern railroad extensions by creating holding lines that would allow Amtrak and Union Pacific trains to pass without as much congestion in Brooklyn Yard itself.
Another solution that has been in the works for a long time is to build an overpass at SE 7th Ave. by OMSI. Schafer said that overpasses are definitely a consideration, although they require many participants in the planning.
Currently TriMet owns a large lot at SE 7th Ave. Years ago the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) provided funding for TriMet to purchase properties throughout the city. They foresaw the necessity of a grade separation over the railroad lines to keep buses flowing.
The SE Portland Railroad Action Group and members of the community are ready to present their findings to PBOT, but Schafer cautions that things won’t get underway until 2024 and then it will take about a year.
Inquiries can be directed to Zef Wagner, Senior Transportation Planner, at zef.wagner@portlandoregon.gov.

Southbound traffic on SE 11th Ave. stopped due to train blockage. Photo by Kris McDowell.

Railroad Holdups Frustrate Drivers, Pedestrians and Cyclists

1 thought on “Railroad Holdups Frustrate Drivers, Pedestrians and Cyclists”

  1. As a resident living on SE 12th Ave, I cannot emphasize enough how disruptive the train blockages at Clinton and 11th/12th are! Please, please, we need to fix this issue!!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top