Parked rail cars attract youth, raise safety concerns

Residents, local officials frustrated with train blight

Neighbors say young people are often seen violating trespassing laws by climbing and running on parked rail cars stored for years by Progressive Rail behind Lakeville homes, raising safety concerns. Neighbors have for years tried to get the parked trains out of their backyards, but have had little success. They say the tracks and trains are also used by photographers. (Photo submitted)
Neighbors say young people are often seen violating trespassing laws by climbing and running on parked rail cars stored for years by Progressive Rail behind Lakeville homes, raising safety concerns. Neighbors have for years tried to get the parked trains out of their backyards, but have had little success. They say the tracks and trains are also used by photographers. (Photo submitted)

Despite years of complaints and pleas by citizens and local officials, some Lakeville residents’ closest neighbors are unused railroad cars.

Various rail cars, often rusting, graffiti-covered, have been parked behind homes by Progressive Rail Inc. for about four years, blocking views and inviting controversy.

Residents have raised concerns over public safety and declining property values while complaining that the cars, parked behind their homes, have interfered with their ability to enjoy their property or sell it if they want to move.

Parked rail cars in neighborhoods also concern city and state leaders, but there are no regulatory options to change or control the situation that Lakeville policy documents call “visual blight.”

“There is not a thing the city can do,” said Diane Volz, a Lakeville resident since 1994. “Their hands are tied. The railroad has more rights than God.”

Railroads are regulated by the federal government under the Interstate Commerce Law because their operations cross state boundaries, said Dave Christianson, Minnesota Department of Transportation senior planner for rail and freight operations.

He said the state also has limited powers regarding railroads. There are no regulations for stored freight cars.

Christianson said the state can send an inspector if there is an unsafe condition, like cars blocking a crossing. If there are safety violations, the company is asked to correct the problem.

Christianson said Lakeville residents’ complaints regarding car storage are referred to Progressive Rail.

Some residents say they are not satisfied with Progressive Rail’s response, and call the parked trains “ugly” and an attractive nuisance to youth.

“We see kids climbing on trains a lot,” said Angela Vandenbusch, Lakeville. “They are running on top of them, lifting up the doors on top, climbing all over them.”

It is illegal for anyone not employed by the railroad to enter a train track or climb on rail cars, yet youths are drawn to the parked rail cars. Residents say they are concerned someone could be hurt or killed on them.

Lakeville resident Theresa Johnson said she has seen teens running and jumping on top of the trains from car-to-car.

“There is some partying or activities at night,” she said. “There are things being thrown at trains and banging on the cars themselves.”

Progressive Rail President Dave Fellon said anyone on railroad property is trespassing and police should be notified, adding that parents should keep better watch over their children.

Lakeville police received three train trespassing complaints from June 1, 2012, to June 1, 2013, according to Valerie Kehrer, records supervisor.

Last October, a caller reported a photographer using the trains for senior pictures, and last August juveniles were reportedly seen running, jumping and sitting on the cars throwing rocks onto a nearby street.

In all the instances, Lakeville police were unable to locate anyone in the area, Kehrer said.

Fellon said he understands the neighbors’ concerns and always responds to their inquiries.

“I appreciate their concerns,” Fellon said. “I have a home, I’ve listened, I’m concerned about it. I’m working with everyone. You can’t say we don’t respond.”

Residents complain obscene graffiti on the trains have exposed their children to inappropriate language and drawings. Some photos of the graffiti were so graphic this newspaper would not publish them.

“All they would have to do is put the cars a block further south,” Vandenbusch said. “At least people could barbecue in their backyard without looking at an ugly train.”

Fellon said that track in Lakeville neighborhoods is all he has available.

“If we have room to move things around, we will do that,” Fellon said. “But we’ve exhausted every one of those options. The only space I have left open is Lakeville.”

He added that every time they receive a request to remove graffiti from the trains they have done it.

“But if it’s local teens doing the painting, that’s another story,” Fellon said. “They have to respect railroad property, too.”

Christianson said Minnesota is one of the few states that does not give railroads the power to police their own property for trespassing and property safety issues.

“We’ve proposed it in the past, but it has not gone over well,” Christianson said. “Legislators are cautious about extending police powers to any agency not reporting directly to the government.”

Local officials would like some more control over the parked trains.

A 2009 Lakeville City Council legislative policy, still a top initiative, asks federal legislators to create laws or rules prohibiting storing railroad cars in residential neighborhoods without the written consent of the city.

“The only thing we can do is talk to them and ask them to change,” City Administrator Steve Mielke said.

Fellon said there are fewer cars on the tracks than in the past, and he hopes the remaining ones will be gone soon as the economy improves because they are needed for transportation.

Until 2009, Lakeville residents had not seen rail cars parked in their neighborhoods.

“For our first 18 years we lived in this house, the trains were basically not used or on occasion a train came through with a couple of cars,” Johnson said. “We knew when we bought the house the tracks were behind our house. We didn’t expect there would be a rail storage space behind our house. These kinds of cars should be stored in an industrial area.”

Progressive Rail stores the cars for customers on track it leases from Canadian Pacific, and some residents say they resent that the company is making money from blighting their property.

“He gets paid for each car parking and we’re supposed to police it and lose money in our property values,” Volz said.

Dakota County Assessor Bill Peterson said the county has reduced those Lakeville property’s land values by 5 percent because of the parked railroad cars.

“Some of those tracks didn’t necessarily have as much activity before, but our appraisers felt that because of parking cars on there, it did warrant some type of a reduction,” Peterson said.

He said if the cars had not been there, the land values probably would not have been reduced.

“It certainly has had an influence on our adjustments,” Peterson said.

Fellon said he has no other choices but to park the cars in the neighborhood, and while the economy is improving in some areas, it is still a far different environment from 2008 when consumer demand kept rail cars operating.

“We’re not in the business to store cars, but when our customers are not having the business they need, we have to,” Fellon said.

He noted the oil tankers that used to be stored in the neighborhoods have moved into operation following the oil boom in North Dakota.

“Some industries are recovering, thanks to a good energy program out there,” Fellon said.

According to the Association of American Railroads, the train industry appears to be slowly recovering.

The association reported U.S. rail traffic was up 1 percent through May compared to the same time last year, but still down from its peak in 2006.
It also reported the number of freight cars in storage also declined between last year and May 1, the fourth consecutive monthly decline, putting the number of cars in storage at its lowest level since April 1, 2012.

Fellon said Progressive Rail is receiving fewer inquiries about storing cars than in the past.

“Two to three years ago, nobody saw any light in the tunnel,” he said.

That light could lead to a different kind of train issue for the neighborhood.

Canadian Pacific turned down the county’s proposal to build a greenway on its rail property through Lakeville.

The idea has been abandoned because the company sees the freight corridor as “a long-term strategic asset” that they want to keep, Dakota County Senior Planner John Mertens said.

“They see it as a freight rail connection to Minneapolis someday,” Mertens said.

Mielke expressed frustration that while the city has authority over other industrial properties to require them to remove graffiti from buildings, it has none with rail cars.

Local, state and federal officials shared Mielke’s expressed frustration about the lack of control.

U.S. Rep. John Kline and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have written the U.S. Surface Transportation Board seeking resolution, and U.S. Sen. Al Franken has also raised concerns.

A Surface Transportation Board spokesman who asked that his name not be published said there are no regulations for stored freight cars, and since railroads are privately owned, they are free to store cars as needed on their own property.

He said the board is an economic regulator of freight railroads, and, although the issue did not fall under its jurisdiction, discussed parked rail cars with Kline and Klobuchar’s staff to “foster communication and seek resolution.”

When asked to elaborate, the spokesman said the discussions were distinct from the process of a formal complaint and added the Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program is also working on the matter.

Kline is exploring legislative options to resolve the issue and “hopes to find a viable solution soon,” according to his spokesman Troy Young.

Klobuchar also said she is seeking solutions to the issue, stating the Lakeville rail cars “need to be moved.”

State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said local governments should have more control over railcar storage “because it’s people within the community that are bothered and inconvenienced by it.”

Lakeville Mayor Matt Little agreed, noting the city has limited function in regulating any federal railway, but has developed a relationship with Progressive Rail, so the city is getting information on the types of cars that will be stored in neighborhoods.

“I would love to see something done in which local municipalities could have some kind of role in regulating rail car storage,” Little said. “We’re doing as much as we can at the city level.”

City Council Member Doug Anderson disagreed, stating the city needs to work harder to look for a solution.

Asked if he thought the city has done enough, he said: “Clearly not, because the concern still exists.”
Change elsewhere

Other areas of the country have been more successful in getting rail car storage out of neighborhoods, including in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and New Castle, Ind.

Eva Henry, a county commissioner in Adams County, Colo., said about four years ago, Union Pacific began storing cars behind an upper-end neighborhood. in Thornton, Colo.

“They brought them in, parked them and left,” Henry said.

Like Lakeville, residents there complained the cars were unattractive, graffiti-covered and a potential hazard for children.

At first, local officials’ calls to Union Pacific were fruitless, because “they passed phone calls like you don’t matter,” Henry said.

But local, state and national elected representatives were persistent.

The company’s response changed dramatically when U.S. Rep. Jared Polis walked into Union Pacific’s Washington, D.C., office and talked to them.

“He had just gotten elected, and was in office a couple of months when he walked down there,” Henry said. “Within a week or two, they moved them.”

She said she does not know what Polis said, and he did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Henry said they worked to help Union Pacific find a different place to store the cars that was “not in the middle of a neighborhood.” She said all the cars are out of storage and back to work now.

Her advice to Lakeville?

“Start working on the political part of it,” Henry said. “Try to get congressmen to work a little harder on it. I think it’s going to take something bigger than state and municipal government to get the rail cars moved.”

  • A. Smith

    If a minor is injured falling from one of these railcars, PGR can be held liable in a court of law under the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine: “According to the doctrine, a landowner will be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land, if the injury is caused by any hazardous condition or object on the land, that is attractive to curious children who are unable to understand the risk involved in such condition or object. For example, a landowner will be held liable for injuries caused by abandoned cars, unguarded swimming pools, open pits, and abandoned refrigerators. Hence, the doctrine, as a general rule, obligates landowners to exercise reasonable care to safeguard children from dangerous conditions on their property[ii].”

  • Lakeville Senior

    A smith, why don’t you climb up one, fall, get injured and litigate. I doubt you will be successful, but would enjoy following the case.

    On a separate note, you should be pleased that you are saving 5% a year in property taxes. You can take that $100 and go out to eat…or build a privacy fence

  • Jan Dobson

    Perhaps parents should assume the responsibility of educating their children about the dangers of being curious around railcars.

    • A. Smith

      Jan, much like Lakeville Senior, you’ve missed the whole point of the doctrine also. To learn more, please do some research on teenage brain development and risk taking. Here’s just one of many, many articles on this subject. This one is titled “Why the Teen Brain is Drawn to Risk”: If you have, will have or have had teens, I certainly hope you aren’t under the misconception that they are perfectly behaved at all times when not in your presence. To place blame only on the parents is very misguided. The railroad has been informed of what is going on, -this has been documented-, and they have taken no steps to prevent it. That is negligence and if a minor is injured they can be held accountable in a court of law under this doctrine.

      • Jan Dobson

        A. Smith:

        It’s hardly breaking news that, once in a while, kids do dumb things. I need look no farther than my own personal ancient history to accept as fact that teenagers sometimes have poor judgment when it comes to a lot of stuff, including assessing risk. But guess what. So do adults. You know, like parents who don’t teach their kids that being around railroad tracks and railcars is dangerous.

        Suggesting injury to children as a pathway to litigating against and thereby controlling railroad companies is really creepy.

        • Summer Heat

          I’m not quite sure litigating against Canadian Pacific would be to successful because your kid trespassed. The railroads have insurance that would cover these events so it isn’t like you would put them or Progressive Rail out of business. The only winners would be the attorney’s and the media

          • A. Smith

            OMG Jan! You seriously think we’re suggesting or hoping that kids are injured so we that can pursue litigation against the railroad?! REALLY? That is the DUMBEST thing I have ever heard. We have warned the railroad so that they can take steps to mitigate this issue. We are trying to head off a tragedy BEFORE it happens. But in all seriousness Jan, the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine would apply here if something happened per the Mayor, and it is no accident that the doctrine applies to minors, not adults.

            Summer Heat: litigation against CP is not the solution…the tracks are leased by PGR and any responsibility is PGRs.

  • Love the water

    It must be a slow news day because we are back to the regurgitated train story; and the police still haven’t caught anybody trespassing although supposedly kids are playing on these all time. Either this is over exaggerated or our police are ineffective in apprehending even though they get 60% of the city budget.

    • A. Smith

      Love the Water, the trespassing is not over exaggerated, merely under-reported.

    • A. Smith

      A report of kids playing on the railcars last night and within just the last hour. This has been reported to the Lakeville Police Dept and they will check it out. We don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but hoping no one gets hurt.

      Wrong again ‘Love the Water’.

  • Love the water

    Maybe the police can relocate the officer always strategically parked behind fire station number 3 to “train patrol”.

  • Lakeville Senior

    We didn’t miss the point. The REAL point is that you don’t like the Choo Choo, but you slam up some link to try and create an ancillary issue to get the reader to focus on.

    • A. Smith

      It’s not an ancillary issue, just one of the many, and might I add, very important issues. Unless you don’t think a potential risk to minors is that important?

  • A. Smith

    This is not a “regurgitated story” merely because it has been written about before. It is a current issue that has been going on for 4+ years. Nobody likes the railcars parked in Lakeville and the safety issue is just one of many, many reasons. For you to defend PGR for all of their transgressions or to place blame solely on parents simply because you have nothing better to do is pathetic. That’s the REAL point. And I didn’t just “slam up some link”. These are facts. Please present your “facts”. If I were a parent who’s teenager is injured on Progressive Rail’s stored train…I would sue the pants off of them for negligence and under the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine and put them out of business. And you’re right, the police do have other things they should be doing, not policing some railroad company’s property.

    • Summer Heat

      Can I sue the Anti_progressive rail coalition for being a nuisance under the Attractive Nuisance Doctrine.

      Nobody in the past 4+ years has been injured by the trains. Therefore, I think we can identify that there are a handful of people who are upset about a train in their backyard and they are going to throw as much crap against the wall and hope something sticks.

      • A. Smith

        Nope can’t sue the anti-PGR coalition for being a nuisance because I’m assuming you’re not a child, and neither am I.

        So, to use your logic, if something doesn’t affect us, we should just not give a crap about it? Ever? Nice.

        Wow, these comments are getting more and more ridiculous by some of you people who have nothing better to do than stir the pot.

  • Actual Lakeville Resident

    A. Smith – As a citizen of Lakeville I can say that I have observed children and teenagers playing around and climbing on the stored railcars first hand. Contrary to the other posters here (or in reality, single poster) I have observed this to occur at least monthly since the railcar storage business began in Lakeville about 4 years ago. I do not call the police when I see this happening because I do not feel it is my business to act as a sentry for a private company. I realize that children and teenagers are going to do things that are beyond my control as a Lakeville citizen. To be dismissive of the danger and responsibility for this danger that this company has to the community is just plain wrong. I think it was the company owner that said there are no other alternatives. I think he means no other alternatives for him to make a buck. Because certainly there are plenty of railcar storage businesses in proper places, like railyards, in the United States. I also think he is trying to get a free handout from the taxpayers in the form of free tracks provided to him somewhere. Good luck with that PGR.

    • A. Smith

      Thank you. Finally an actual logical post with some thought behind it.

      • Lakeville Senior

        It is always logical when you are the same person. We should call the police when laws are broken…just think if one of those kids get hurts….had you called the police when you saw it, those kids may not have return to climb a second time.

        • A. Smith

          Sorry Lakeville Senior, I don’t know who the ‘Actual Lakeville Resident’ poster is…
          And, yes, as noted above to ‘Love the Water’, kids were seen on the trains yesterday, and today. Police were called. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble or have them charged a trespassing fine when their family might not be able to afford it, but their safety comes first so we must call it in.

  • Lakeville Senior

    If you go and view recently sold homes on Edina Realty website you will see that three homes that border railroad tracks in Lakeville sold between mid-march and early April. If you compare them to similar houses in Lakeville, they are sold at relatively the same price. Therefore you should go ahead an put your house up for sale and move. And no, I don’t want to buy your house. I choose to purchase homes away from train tracks

    • A. Smith

      Have those railroad tracks you’re speaking of been storing railcars for 4+ years? The Dakota County Assessors office devalued property on the railroad tracks in Lakeville “IN VIEW OF RAILCARS”….that’s the whole point. To give you a personal anecdote: a person who lives near me who is selling their house took it off the market for now because people drive up, see the ugly railcars, turn around and leave. Please don’t come to me when some zoning law changes and you don’t like what’s going on in your neighborhood, or when hazmat from PGR ends up in your ground water. You will get no help or sympathy for me. Start your own coalition. For your info:$75000.html

      • Lakeville Senior

        CP is never going to sell those tracks. Too much complaining with give CP the idea of upgrading those tracks and shipping stuff daily on them, i.e. frac sand. Then you’ll be here complaining about moving trains, sand dust and horns tooting. Parked trains are quiet trains, an excellent sound barrier and a good weed guard.

        • A. Smith

          ….these parked railcars are better than freight traffic, they are quiet and a sound barrier, in addition to being a death trap. The doors are wide open on top and there are no interior ladders. Even if an adult falls in, there does not appear to be any way out. Check it out for yourself.

        • Realist

          Have you bothered to walk along the tracks? The weeds are everywhere on both sides! PGR is the nastiest company to have in a town. Really, what do they do that is good for this city? Do they do things for Charity, helping the poor or down trodden? They are all about themselves and have probably never helped another sole person in their life. When it comes to parenting as Dave Fellon talks about, his parents did an awful job raising him! If he has children, (I shudder to think), I’m sure they will be just as selfish and uncaring as he is. He has no common courtesy or sense. Businesses usually try to take care of their work place which also helps the community, but not PGR. They have never done a thing about the weed issue along the tracks. Where is the State of Minnesota when it comes to noxious weeds? The only solice I have is that Dave Fellon probably has a very nice cozy residence with great views. I’m sure he thinks he’s living the good life. The afterlife for him will be just the opposite. God does have a checks and balance list.

  • Love the water

    I love it when Thomas the train comes to Lakeville and my kids can enjoy the train ride. People come from all of the city for the event each year(or every other year).

    • A. Smith

      I’m all for Thomas the Train rides. But not a residential railcar storage business, The residents don’t want it, the City doesn’t want it, our legislators don’t want it. You are in the minority.

      • Train Engineer

        The point is not trains, and rides on trains. It’s the derailed idea that storing unused railcars in residential neighborhoods (for years, in this case) is okay. Well, it’s not okay. I can say that as an engineer. It’s about a hazard and a nuisance for minors, not about trains.

        • Words of Wisdom

          Words of wisdom from a train engineer.

      • Lakeville Senior

        You want trails…you can’t have both trails and imaginary trains

        • A. Smith

          A trail would be awesome Lakeville Senior, but your comments are becoming just silly. Let’s stick to the subject at hand, shall we? Bottom line, PGR has apparently assessed the risk of someone actually getting hurt on the stored trains, has determined that it probably won’t happen, and if it does, they have insurance, so they’re going to continue to store the cars and make their money. Doesn’t it concern any of you that you are letting one company, who doesn’t care about your kids’ safety AT ALL, call all the shots with no checks and balances? Do you know that we have found NO ONE who has jurisdiction over the actual railcars? Not the city, not the STB, not the FRA, not the MPCA, not your legislators…no one. You might want to rethink your position folks.

    • Lakeville Senior

      Thomas the train is imaginary. So is the Polar Express

  • Wally the Waterbug

    Really? Are you kidding? You stored potential oil dripping tank cars across Lake Marion? Lakeville’s (emphasis on Lake) pride and joy. Wow! That takes guts.

    ‘”We’re not in the business to store cars, but when our customers are not having the business they need, we have to,” Fellon said.

    He noted the oil tankers that used to be stored in the neighborhoods have moved into operation following the oil boom in North Dakota.’

  • Chairman, CEO, President and VP of Everything

    I’m curious… Please comment on why we have to store oil tanker cars adjacent to and across the main lake in Lakeville (or any lake for that matter)?

    • Love the water

      Do you know that the train cars are empty? They going to leak old stale air and Boise lumber dust. Boaters on lake Marion pollute the water more than the trains

  • Jan Dobson

    I’m curious, too. Do the City of Lakeville, Dakota County and/or the State of Minnesota derive any income from the train tracks in question?

  • A. Smith

    PGR is a private company so I’m sure the city receives taxes from them just like any other company. The city has advised that they are researching whether or not PGR receives any state funding that they could use as leverage to try and get them to move the railcars. Read the following:

  • A. Smith

    Per the Surface Transportation Board 6/12/13: “We have been trying to broker a compromise under which Progressive Rail would lock or secure the doors and hatches on the stored railcars.”

    Seriously. A deal needs to be brokered for the safety of the kids in our neighborhoods? Clear negligence on the part of Progressive Rail.

    • Lakeville senior

      PGR doesn’t own the cars, maybe they legally cannot or need something from ADM or Boise or whoever cars to give them permission to close them.

      If you are so concerned, why don’t you go lock them

      • A. Smith

        So it will be ok with you when you read in this publication that a kid died when they fell into one of these cars and couldn’t get out? What would be some of your comments then?? Why would you continue to defend a company who doesn’t care about your or anyone else’s well being? Furthermore, I can’t lock them because that would be trespassing now, wouldn’t it? It doesn’t matter who owns the cars, PGR is responsible and will be held accountable under the attractive nuisance doctrine if an accident does happen. The point is, it shouldn’t matter who owns them, or any other minor detail like that; kids’ safety should be paramount. Period.

        • Love the water

          Smith, it sounds like you might be more productive educating children that playing on trains is against the law and could be dangerous instead of beating a dead horse by preaching here and on Matt Little’s Facebook page-two places children do not hang out on. Maybe you could hold up a protest sign along 50 that says “keep kids safe, stay away from trains”.

  • Smith

    OK “Love the Water”, aka Dave Fellon, maybe you should move along now, but before you go, please re-read one of the above posts with the article titled “Why the Teen Brain is Drawn to Risk”. It might answer your question. Then, why don’t you leave and take your eyesore trains with you. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

  • Smith

    ….a couple of kids are climbing on the railcars as we speak….maybe you could get out there and educate them for us.

  • Ed Stefanopadopolis

    Talk about lakeville problems…jeez. If you’re worried about your kids playing on them, don’t let your kids play on them. If this is all you have to worry about life is going pretty well. Nobody feels bad for you because there are some grain cars stored off in the distance in your back yard.