Noise, safety issues make rail merger a rotten deal for eastern Iowa

Railroad crossing sign. (Photo by Kateywhat/iStock/Getty Images)

By Ann Geiger

Ann Geiger

There are issues flying under the radar in our neck of the woods. Last year, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern launched a corporate merger under the purview of the Surface Transportation Board (STB), a totally autonomous federal agency. As a result, the two railroads will triple their traffic through eastern Iowa – mostly crude oil from Canada headed for refineries in Mexico. As the regulatory process continues forward, not nearly enough Iowans are aware of the proposed merger. Further, I do not believe the railroads are too strong to resist.

Our state and the two companies involved already have a spotty record when it comes to safety. In January 2020, a Canadian Pacific train derailed in LeClaire, creating a chemical leak that was thankfully mitigated. On June 22,  2022, a train carrying coal spilled its cargo into the Mississippi River near Lansing. No one was injured in either accident, but their frequency underscores a concern about safety standards. Even worse, Iowa recently ranked as one of the worst states in the country for childhood railroad safety, reporting 54 accidents involving kids between 2010 and 2019. These tracks run alongside bustling neighborhoods and schools.

The proposed merger also promises to affect area tourism and economic development. Our communities have worked hard to beautify and improve their riverfront areas which have attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. People come from all over the world to learn about the Mississippi River at our museums and interpretive centers. If the Surface Transportation Board approves this merger, the new train schedules will undercut those efforts. The railroad isn’t going to stop for Tug Fest or the fall symphony in Davenport’s LeClaire Park.

Critics work to rally opposition to rail merger along the Mississippi

Three of our largest cities have accepted money if the deal goes through. Citizens are just now becoming aware of the potential dangers and noise, and our cities belong to the citizens. City officials don’t think they can beat the railroad and take bribes. But how does money in our city coffers make the noise any better?

What evidence do we need that the merger isn’t of benefit to Iowa, or its residents? The very premise of shipping crude oil, which is very dangerous if it spills and explodes, as it did in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in 2013, burning half the downtown, should be enough. How big are some of our downtowns? What if they dump into the Mississippi as they did this spring in Lansing, Iowa?  These trains want to cross Iowa from a country which is not ours, to another country which is not ours, with nothing involving the U.S. except as a transportation corridor.

The noise amounts to 120 decibels – almost double the safe limit for regular exposure. Those of us who live near the tracks, and you don’t have to be too close, will have to live with approximately triple the train traffic every day. How do you have a quiet dinner, get your children to take a nap, or enjoy sleep with the windows open? And what if you want to sell your beautiful house overlooking the river that you planned to live in for the rest of your life?

This, with the merger’s impact to the Mississippi River, public safety, and economic development, makes it a rotten deal for eastern Iowa. Of course, we aren’t alone in this. Our border states like Missouri and Illinois will share similar fates. In fact, Illinois’ congressional delegation has written to the STB in opposition to the merger. Our Iowa delegation has been informed of our concerns but remained silent.

For the benefit of their constituents, Iowa’s elected officials should demonstrate the same unity and concern as their peers. I’m calling on Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Reps. Ashley Hinson, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, and Cindy Axne, all of whom represent areas to be affected by the merger, to publicly request the Surface Transportation Board deny the merger as it currently stands. Talk with your city councils to send a letter in opposition to this merger and attend the public meeting at the RiverCenter in Davenport on Sept. 13. If you can, sign up on the website. If our governments won’t pay attention to us, maybe the STB will.

Ann Geiger is an appointed member of the Iowa Mississippi River Parkway Commission and former councilmember of the City of Princeton, Iowa. 

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