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An hour and 18 minutes: That's the longest Mary Rhoades has sat, two blocks from home, watching the clock and waiting while train cars blocked her path. 

"I timed it," she says.

Most drivers wouldn't last that long — they'd find another route — but Rhoades and her neighbors don't have a choice.

Their half of Buccaneer Bay, a lakefront community in Cass County, is sandwiched between the Platte River to the north and the BNSF railroad to the south. And the only way into or out of their neighborhood is on Treasure Island Road, which crosses the tracks.

Too often, Rhoades said, a train makes those tracks a dead end.

But she has family in helpful places. Her daughter Crystal is a member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates railroads.

"Since Crystal's been on the case, it's not happening near as often," Rhoades said.

Crystal Rhoades, a Democrat who represents the Omaha area, convinced her fellow commissioners to launch an investigation into the Cass County issue in September after her parents and other residents of Buccaneer Bay complained. Last week, the commission expanded the case statewide after other members reported issues in their districts.

"This is really a public safety issue," Crystal Rhoades said. And for residents of blocked neighborhoods, "it can also really impact the quality of their lives."

Around Christmas, a firetruck got held up on its way to the Rhoades house. Another time, a train delayed rescue workers en route to help her 85-year-old friend with a medical episode, Mary Rhoades said.

There's no rule against trains briefly blocking a crossing, but state regulations require stopped trains to get moving within 10 minutes after a vehicle or pedestrian shows up. If a train can't continue down the track by then, its crew is supposed to "break" the train by separating two cars to open the crossing.

Railroads also have sidings where trains can park out of the way, including one just east of Buccaneer Bay across U.S. 75 and another near Louisville to the west. But unexpected issues — debris on the tracks, mechanical issues, even traffic miles ahead — can force trains to stop on mainline tracks.

Breaking a train doesn't always make sense in those cases, BNSF spokesman Andy Williams said.

"Breaking a train could cause the crossing to be blocked longer because train crews must perform required federal inspections when the train is recoupled," he said. That includes walking the entire length of the train.

The company tries to limit those situations and encourages local agencies to call railroad dispatchers if they need to use a blocked crossing, he said.

The Buccaneer Bay crossing "poses unique issues," Williams said: Trains must wait for a signal before they cross Union Pacific tracks to the west, and when that signal isn't working, the crew slowly pulls the train forward to get a visual of the UP route, blocking the crossing.

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The Public Service Commission rarely gets involved in railroad crossing issues, which are usually handled by local governments or at the state level by the Department of Roads, said Gerald Vap of McCook, the Public Service Commission chairman.

However, the 10-minute rule is part of the commission's rulebook, which commissioners have the power to enforce.

And while drivers cursing trains isn't new, there's a specific kind of tension bubbling up in Buccaneer Bay and other Platte River communities.

Trains had more breathing room in 1982, when the Rhoadeses bought their lakefront property.

Back then only a few vacation homes dotted the local shores; now dozens of houses line the waterfront. And many owners live there seven days a week, using the Treasure Island crossing to get to and from work.

Next week, the local sanitary improvement district board will consider creating a quiet zone along the railroad.

It's a familiar situation for BNSF, as housing developments across the country crowd closer to existing railroad tracks, Williams said.

"And as new developments are being planned, we want to work with stakeholders so they think through potential issues like access and noise in the initial planning," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or On Twitter @zachamiLJS.


Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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