STAFF WRITER CONNIE SWINNEY
BURNET COUNTY — Ten minutes after her 911 call on July 10, a lone first responder arrived at the home of Mojo Cornelius’s ailing 79-year-old mother.
“A paramedic came up in a personal vehicle and told us they were having trouble getting the ambulance there,” Cornelius said. “The train was blocking the tracks.”
About 30 minutes after the initial call at 2:25 p.m., a Marble Falls Area EMS ambulance crew wound its way through a quarry on private property to get to the location on Crider Road off CR 120.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but (my mother) had a heart attack,” Cornelius said. “We have no complaints about the team that responded. They were impeccable.
“The train almost kept EMS from being able to get to her,” she added. “We’re talking about a medical emergency and a life.”
The delay caused by a stopped freight train that day was one in a series of incidents reported in the past two weeks resulting in extensive waits at public railroad crossings, twice being as long as an hour and a half.
Austin Western Railroad, a subsidiary of the Kansas-based WATCO Companies, is the private entity tasked with managing the rail cars on the line.
Officials said the company has fielded a growing number of reports of primarily gravel-hauling freight cars stopped or stalled on Burnet County tracks crossing County Roads 120, 121, and 123 in the Fairland Road and Tobyville subdivisions as well as U.S. 281 between Burnet and Marble Falls.
“It was an anomaly,” said John Anderson, Austin Western Railroad’s general manager. “We’ve been working out here for years and have not had any problems.”
Anderson explained what had caused the latest issues.
“We have 300 storage (railroad freight cars) on that line. A customer had ordered cars, so the crew went out and started digging out those cars,” he said. “When they needed one, they moved some back onto the line. We don’t anticipate that ever happening again.”
Anderson added that the company has enacted enhanced protocols to reinforce policy and drafted additional preventative measures.
“What we’ve put in place is levels of management that will catch that before it ever happens again,” he said. “We are the fail-safe. It’s up to us to be good managers of the railroad.”
Other company guidelines will include:
• reducing the amount of storage fleet on the rail lines among the subdivisions in Burnet County;
• enacting communication protocols to involve law enforcement and emergency personnel if and when roadways will be blocked;
• and reinforcing a company policy that places a 15-minute maximum limit on the amount of time rail cars will block public roads.
Burnet County Judge James Oakley asked company representatives to address the commissioners court about their solutions.
“This is creating a public outrage, an endangerment for folks in need of emergency services,” Oakley said. “It’s more than just an inconvenience; it’s simply unacceptable.”
Railroad company representatives are scheduled to attend the next regular Burnet County commissioners meeting Tuesday, July 24, which begins at 9 a.m. in the Burnet County Courthouse, to address the issue.
As of July 13, physicians had cleared Cornelius’s mother to start rehabilitation.
“It looks like she’s going to pass this scare and go to rehab,” Cornelius said. “(The railroad company) almost bought themselves a lawsuit because, if my mom had not made it, that’s what would have happened.”