Malfunctioning railroad signals tied up traffic on John Nolen Drive for nearly two hours Friday night, and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is meeting with Wisconsin and Southern railroad officials about similar incidents.
Madison police said they were called to John Nolen Drive at Broom Street and North Shore Drive after 6 p.m. after motorists reported they had already been stuck in traffic about a half hour. Officers found the gates had gone down, but there was no train.
Seven police officers tried to lift arms and move vehicles to get an ambulance through the congestion, according to police. An officer found nylon straps in his squad car’s truck that were used to hold two rail crossings up.
Malfunctioning railroad arms and long trains are becoming more common in Madison, and they're increasingly a danger to public safety, Madison Police Lt. Kelly Donahue said.
"If we have five or six officers tied up at one railroad crossing, that wipes out an entire district and all of the officers who work in that area are unable to respond to other calls because they're tied up dealing with the railroad crossing," Donahue said. "Or, they're stuck in traffic just like everyone else."
Police said the situation was complicated by a suspected drunken driver who drove around a squad car, drove into one of the down railroad arms and snapped it off at the hinges. A 72-year-old Deerfield man was arrested on suspicion of operating while intoxicated.
An electrician arrived at 7:10 p.m. and had the North Shore crossing working 10 minutes later. The Broom Street crossing was working again around 7:45 p.m. Based on what motorists told officers, the crossings had been malfunctioning since about 5:30 p.m.
Wisconsin and Southern told WISC-TV that signal maintenance is handled through third parties. In this case, they said they were contacted at 6:30 p.m. and the maintenance worker was on site in 30 minutes.
"Unfortunately, when our maintainers are dispatched to a signal failure, they are also caught in traffic," said Wisconsin and Southern Railroad representative Ken Lucht. "Additionally, that maintainer was working another crossing in Dane County at the time and did leave immediately to mitigate this particular situation."
Lucht said the cause of the malfunction is still under investigation, but they believe the cause is variation in air temperatures. Vandalism hasn't been ruled out.
He said the devices are designed to close off traffic when they malfunction as a safety measure.
Police said they were going to issue their report about the incident to the City Attorney’s Office for investigation of possible violations of city ordinances or state statutes. The officer who wrote the report said the response time was unacceptable given the volume of traffic, the demand for police resources, increase in calls to dispatchers and safety concerns for ambulances and fire trucks responding to calls.
But police are powerless to enforce a city ordinance aimed at preventing railroad gates from dropping for more than a few minutes, Donahue said. Numerous court decisions dictate that federal law overrules local ordinances in controlling railroad crossings.
Mayor Paul Soglin demanded a meeting with Wisconsin and Southern Railroad after WISC-TV last month showed a train crossing East Washington Avenue for more than 40 minutes. The meeting is scheduled for next week.
Apart from talking to congressional representatives about the need to change the law, there's not much the city can do, said Larry Palm, who represents parts of the east and north sides and has the railroad running through his district.
"It's very disappointing," he said. "It's frustraing to tell a resident, a neighbor, that there's not much we can do. Unfortunately, that's the law."