GENOA, Wis. — Charles Burch was heading to his favorite ice fishing spot, a Mississippi River backwater south of Genoa, when he ran into a railroad detective.
The 74-year-old angler said the cop asked where he was headed.
“Obviously I’m going fishing,” Burch said, retelling the story.
The railroad cop told him if he went across the tracks he’d get a trespassing ticket.
There was no other way to reach the water, so Burch turned around and hasn’t been back to that spot since. Nevermind that he’d been fishing that slough for 40 years.
His experience is an increasingly common one, especially along Wisconsin’s western border, where more than 214 miles of BNSF track separates most of the state from the Mississippi River.
Citing safety concerns, BNSF is warning people not to cross its tracks, but the move could cut off access to thousands of acres of public land in Wisconsin.
Hunters and anglers say it’s an affront to a Wisconsin lifestyle; railroad officials consider it a matter of life itself.
“The reality is there’s a lot of areas along the river that, if you can’t cross the tracks, you can’t get access to,” said Marc Schultz, chairman of the La Crosse County Conservation Alliance. “You’re impacting low- and moderate-income folks that don’t have all the wherewithal to get out there.”
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the railroad isn’t trying to stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors.
“We’re not saying don’t fish,” she said. “We’re saying access that (area) in a safe way.”
While the railroad recently hired an officer to patrol Wisconsin, McBeth stressed that the campaign so far has been educational.
“We are not nor have we been citing people. We’re trying to make them aware,” she said. “At this point, it’s all an education campaign.”
Rick Hauser is a railroad conductor who works along the Mississippi River corridor and the local legislative representative for SMART-TD Local 311, the union that represents BNSF conductors.
“I honestly can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had to whistle at someone walking down the middle of the track with a fishing pole,” Hauser said. “I’ve seen them crossing, and I’ve also seen them walking right down the middle of the track.”
Hauser said he’s even seen people climbing through or under parked trains.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said.
Susie Klinger is general manager and also an engineer with Tomahawk Rail in northern Wisconsin. She also serves as the state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit safety advocacy organization funded in part by the federal government and the Association of American Railroads.
She says modern trains are quieter — thanks to smoother rails — and coming far more frequently. They overhang the rails by three feet, and it’s not uncommon for cargo to shift and stick out even further.
Trains can’t swerve, and Klinger points out that a fully-loaded freight can take up to a mile to stop. By the time an engineer sees someone on the tracks, she said, “It’s too late.”
Hundreds killed, but few anglers
Outdoors advocates argue the railroad is going overboard with enforcement.
“For years it worked, and why did they have to change it?” Schultz said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Mark Clements owns Clements Fishing Barge in Genoa, where customers have crossed the tracks without incident since 1936.
“I think it’s a shame,” he said. “I remember as a kid — I was 12, 13 years old — I’d take my rod and (go) across the tracks … and catch bass.”
But one thing is certain: Trains can be deadly.
Each year, more than 450 people are killed while trespassing on railroad property, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That’s not counting collisions at highways.
But statistically they are more likely to be intoxicated, suicidal or simply wandering down the tracks than crossing them.
Much of the time they are walking, standing or lying on the track. Researchers believe at least one in four trespassing deaths is a suicide. More than half the time, alcohol or drugs are involved.
In Wisconsin, 65 trespassers have been killed by trains during the past decade.
A dozen of those deaths occurred in Buffalo, La Crosse, Vernon and Crawford counties. Of those, half were classified as running or walking, a quarter were lying on the track and the other quarter driving.
La Crosse County has not had a trespasser fatality since 2011, when two people died while lying on the tracks. Vernon County’s last fatalities occurred in 2010; both were suspected suicides.
“Not once has it been a hunter or fisherman or someone who had a purpose,” Clements said.
Whatever the reason for being on the tracks, those fatalities take a toll on the men and women who operate the trains.
“You are so helpless up there,” Klinger said. “You’re counting on someone else’s good sense.”
Klinger recounts one close call with a man and some kids fishing from a bridge, but she’s never hit anyone. Hauser has.
He said two decades of military service taught him to compartmentalize, but he’s seen coworkers debilitated by the trauma.
“There are people it has messed up forever,” he said. “Walking back to find the person you hit, that’s not a lot of fun.”
218 miles of rail, 106 public crossings
McBeth said people should use designated public crossings — such as highways, roads or sidewalks.
“It’s a significant safety issue for people to be crossing railroad tracks at any place other than a railroad crossing,” she said. “We take that seriously.”
Outside the city of La Crosse, which lies between the railroad and the river, there are 106 public crossings of about 218 miles of BNSF right of way through western Wisconsin, according to FRA records.
There are another 103 private crossings, which McBeth said can be used by the agreement holder and guests.
Schultz said there are many hunting and fishing areas on public land not accessible by such crossings.
There are long stretches — from Fountain City to Trempealeau and Goose Island to Stoddard, for instance — with no crossings whatsoever.
Wisconsin law has long prohibited trespassing on railroad property, but enforcement has only lately become an area of concern for outdoors enthusiasts.
McBeth said the current campaign, which she characterized as “an education process,” began after BNSF recently hired an officer to patrol Wisconsin.
Steve Dewald, a retired game warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said he started hearing from other wardens who were getting complaints.
Dewald said he dealt with a similar concern 15 years ago when the DNR and Fish and Wildlife Service were building a Mississippi River island complex north of Stoddard. He researched the law and pointed out the exemption for pedestrians walking directly across the track.
But lawmakers removed that exemption in 2006 with a bill supported by railroad lobbyists.
“It was done very quietly,” Dewald said. “Nobody knew it was taken out.”
Half a dozen people fishing from the Onalaska spillway on Wednesday morning were surprised to hear they had broken the law walking down the path to the popular fishing spot.
“It’s been forever. Everybody comes here,” said one man who didn’t want to give his name. “I’ve never encountered anything like this.”
While the spillway is accessible from French Island, it’s a half-mile walk from Fisherman’s Road and treacherous to cross when the water is high.
“Everybody that knows anything about fishing knows this is where you go,” said Joe McRaniels, who said he’s been coming to the spillway since 1990 and doesn’t own a boat. “If you’re just some poor Joe like me who wants to catch some fish ...”
McBeth said the railroad has focused efforts on the spillway because trains routinely stop in that area, and there have been multiple reports of people going under or between cars.
“We just have a zero tolerance for that,” she said. “It’s just so very, very dangerous.”
Cha Lor, 28, was fishing from the dam with his 3-year-old son, Chance. He said he can’t afford a boat and comes at least a couple of times each week.
“Instead of banning it,” he offered, “they should build a crosswalk.”
McBeth said BNSF conducts similar campaigns across its network, but there have not been reports of conflict in neighboring states, whose laws also prohibit trespassing except at designated crossings.
The Canadian Pacific railroad hugs the west bank of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, but game wardens in the southeastern part of the state said they have not heard of conflicts between sportsmen and the railroad.
CP spokesman Andy Cummings said the railroad conducted enforcement blitzes this week in Milwaukee and Davenport, Iowa, and will continue to raise awareness across its network in the U.S. and Canada.
The railroad plans to partner with local police next month to highlight trespassing issues in Wauwatosa, Cummings said.
“Unfortunately, people do sometimes choose to trespass on railroad property,” he said. “This issue is of serious concern to CP.”
Some Wisconsin tourism officials worry that overly strict enforcement could hurt the region’s economy.
“Of course safety is important,” said Sherry Quamme, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission. However, so are the economy and tourism. “As you think back to the situations that have occurred where there’s been injuries of fatalities, generally it isn’t from people wanting to access the river for recreational or commercial fishing.”
At the Clements barge, customers descend a set of stairs from Hwy. 35 to a wooden crossing that spans two tracks where BNSF trains run at up to 60 mph.
Clements said he has a 55-year-old lease with the railroad that requires him to maintain liability insurance on the crossing, which also provides access to a popular beach.
But he worries the railroad could cancel his agreement.
“There’s that fear,” he said, “a small businessman dealing with big business.”
Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen said he met with BNSF’s new detective over the winter. He understands the safety concern and said he would like to work with the railroad to come up with a safe way to get to the water.
“I would love to talk to them about it,” he said. “We have to find some way to safely coexist.”
Chilsen said the city’s plans for a multi-million dollar redevelopment of the waterfront “is going to complicate the issue.”
Adding a footbridge could cost about $3 million that Chilsen said the city doesn’t have.
Pursuing repeal, compromise
Rep. Lee Nerison, a Republican from Westby whose district includes Vernon and Crawford counties, is concerned enough that he has drafted legislation to restore an exemption for people “walking directly across the tracks or right-of-way of any railroad.”
“I just look at it as you’re not going to be able to get to a lot of public land,” he said. “You’re basically going to shut down a big part of the river.”
Nerison said he understands the concern for safety but wonders if the railroad hasn’t gone too far.
“I think it’s safer crossing the railroad tracks than crossing the highway,” he said.
Whether there is a legal remedy, some on both sides of the issue agree that good judgment could solve many problems.
Dewald said people who climb through trains or walk down the tracks should be cited, but people should be allowed to hop across on their way to fish.
Hauser doesn’t speak for the railroad, but as a train operator he’d like to see people use better judgment near the tracks.
“It can get ugly, but it really doesn’t need to,” Hauser said. “A little common sense goes a long way.”
McBeth said the railroad is open to working with local communities to find alternate access points.
Burch, the angler who was warned off his ice fishing hole, was pragmatic about it as he and his brother reeled in northern pike from a beach near Genoa — reached by a private crossing.
“Yeah, that’s the way it goes,” he said. “There’s a lot of other places to go fishing.”