‘It’s a problem’: Long trains pose safety concerns, challenges for first responders

Published: May. 19, 2023 at 5:40 AM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - Railroads are a vital part of the history of the United States and its economy. More freight moves by rail than any other mode of transportation, passing through major cities and small communities.

KCTV5 has teamed up with our national investigative team, Investigate TV, and partnered with Pro-Publica in examining safety concerns.

Our Investigative team traveled to Frankfort, Kansas, in Marshall County to reveal the challenges communities face as trains get longer and longer. We talked with first responders about their concerns.

“If it stops in the right place, it blocks all three crossings that lead out of Frankfort on the south and west,” said Paul Tommer, Chief of Frankfort’s Volunteer Fire Department.

Frankfort, Kansas
Frankfort, Kansas(KCTV5)

Mike Vermetten, a volunteer firefighter in another community and the Marshall County undersheriff, said he thinks about trains every time he’s out on a call.

“How fast are we going to be able to get there to render to those individuals?” wondered Vermetten. “Depending on the exact area where the crossing is blocked, it could add up to 15 minutes to the response time in a critical incident. For those victims, minutes seem like hours.”

To go around blocked crossings, first responders need to go around and backtrack on gravel roads, losing precious time. They’ve seen first-hand the consequences of a delay.

The community has seen what could happen. A couple of years ago, a call went out for a structure fire just outside of town. The Frankfort Department was the closest but couldn’t get there because of blocked crossings.

“It consumed the entire building and got in the grass. Hay bales were on fire,” said Vermetten.

Ten other departments were called in to bring the fire under control. Fortunately, there were no injuries.  But everyone worries about when the train will block an ambulance.

“To my knowledge, we haven’t lost somebody to that, but we do constantly think about how are we going to fix this?” said Vermetten. “How are we going to get through this situation?”

During our visit, we met Skip McMillian.

“It’s a problem and they know it,” said McMillian. “It’s just, it’s dangerous.”

He lives on the edge of town—across the tracks. When the cross is clear, the ambulance is nearby, but if it’s blocked, McMillian estimates he’d be waiting for 20-30 minutes.

“My problem with that is I’ve got heart issues,” said McMillian. He’s had two heart attacks.


He’s called to complain about the trains cutting the town off but says nothing changes.

“I just say the railroad is a lot stronger than the government because they do what they want.”

Firm information is tough to come by—the government has tried. But only two out of seven class-one railroads provided information when requested. But just looking at those two, it revealed the length of trains has increased by 25 percent since 2008. It’s not unusual for trains today to be several miles long.

Kansas Senator Carolyn McGinn supports legislation limiting the length of trains. McGinn represents Kansas’ 31st District which includes the city of Sedgwick and part of Wichita. She said she hears from constituents about how their communities are cut in half and have noticed how trains are getting longer.

“There have been trains up to five miles that have gone through Kansas City to Marysville, and cutting all those communities off,” said McGinn.

McGinn said one time a train stopped in the town and Sedgwick and didn’t move for hours.

“Kids got out of school, it’s 20 degrees, and they started crawling under the train to get home from school,” said McGinn. Fortunately, there were no injuries as a result of the stopped train.

Near the end of the last legislative session, the Kansas Senate passed SB 271, which would limit trains to a maximum length of 8,500 feet.  That bill was sent to the House but won’t be considered at least until legislators return to work in January.

“We understand that we need to get supplies across our country,” said McGinn. “But at the same time, be considerate of the fact that (residents) can’t get to meetings, they can’t get to the hospitals, they can’t get across the train to get home from school. I’m just asking the railroad to be a good neighbor.”

Long trains are getting attention nationwide. Eighteen state attorneys general have asked the supreme court to clarify the law. It’s unclear whether states have rights to limit the length of trains. The Supreme Court has asked the federal government to weigh in on who has jurisdiction. Right now, there are no clear answers.

To learn more about the nationwide attention, visit our partners in this investigation: