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Frequently Asked Questions

Iowa's Rail Transportation System

  • How many railroads are in the state of Iowa?
  • There are 19 railroads in the state of Iowa ranging from railroads that have just a few miles of track to transcontinental railroads.
  • How many trains are there a day on a particular line?
  • The number of trains per day is available in the Federal Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory. A report can be generated by state and county to identify the number of trains at a crossing. Go to http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/officeofsafety/ and select Report 8.08, Public Crossing Inventory Detail Report. Enter the state and county and the information will be displayed on your screen.
  • How fast do the trains go on a particular line?
  • The railroads determine the operating speed of the trains and must maintain the condition of their tracks pursuant to the Federal Railroad Administration standards that apply to the chosen speed of operation.  The speed range of trains at any individual highway-rail crossing can be found in the Federal Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory.
  • Can I get a copy of Iowa’s current rail maps?
  • Copies of Iowa’s current rail maps are available on this Web site or call 515-239-1140 to get a paper copy.
  • How many tons of freight are shipped by rail in Iowa?
  • In 2008 railroads originated 52.3million tons of freight and terminated 43.7 million tons of freight in Iowa. In addition to what originated and terminated in Iowa, another 237 million tons of freight moved through Iowa by rail in 2008.  That totals over 333 million tons of freight that traveled on Iowa's rail system.  Additional Iowa rail facts.
  • What rail passenger service is available in Iowa and what is the current ridership level?
  • Iowa is currently served by two transcontinental Amtrak passenger routes -- the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief. Both routes provide daily two-way service between Chicago and the West Coast. Additional route and service information can be found at Amtrak.com. Iowa ridership for fiscal year 2004 totaled 54,365 passengers. More information on the Amtrak station locations in Iowa.
  • How can I find the appropriate person to talk to for a specific railroad?
  • Many of Iowa's railroads maintain web sites where contact information can be found. Links to railroads with web sites are included in the railroad's profile.  If you are unable to locate the appropriate person at a railroad, the Office of Rail Transportation at 515-239-1140 may be able to assist you in identifying the correct contact person.

Federal and State Regulation of Railroads

  • Is there a state or federal law prohibiting the railroads from blocking a crossing?
  • Iowa Code Section 327G.32 relates to blocked public crossings. It states that a railroad corporation or its employees shall not operate a train in such a manner as to prevent vehicular use of a highway, street or alley for more than 10 minutes except in any of the following circumstances:

    • when necessary to comply with signals affecting the safety of the movement of the trains;
    • when necessary to avoid striking an object or person on the track;
      when the train is disabled; or
    • when necessary to comply with governmental safety regulations, including but not limited to speed ordinances and speed regulations.
    A current issue is whether state law on blocked crossings is preempted by federal regulations. There are conflicting court decisions as to who has regulatory jurisdiction.
  • Do local and county authorities have any jurisdiction over railroads blocking public crossings?
  • Section 327G.32 makes it illegal for a railroad to block vehicular traffic more than 10 minutes, except for the reasons listed in the previous question. City and county law enforcement officers can issue tickets to railroads that violate Iowa Code Section 327G.32. More information on blocked crossings.
  • Does the railroad have the right to condemn my property?
  • Railroads have  the legal right to condemn property for railway use (Iowa Code Section 6A.6). A railroad wanting to condemn land within the state of Iowa must apply to the Iowa Department of Transportation for permission to condemn. (Iowa Code Section 6A.10)
  • What agency regulates railroads?
  • In 1980, the Staggers Act was passed by Congress which eliminated much of the economic regulations that previously governed rail rates and services.  Rail safety and the vast majority of other current regulation takes place at the  federal level. Federal agencies under the United States Department of Transportation, such as the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulate railroad corporations. More information on rail regulation.
  • Is there anything the Iowa DOT can do to help me get more rail cars or better rail service?
  • The Iowa DOT has no regulatory authority to influence railroad service issues. Every railroad corporation is required, upon reasonable notice and within a reasonable time to furnish suitable cars to any and all persons who may apply for the transportation of any and all kinds of freight.
  • Can a city require a railroad to operate at a specific speed?
  • No. A city can not restrict a train's speed. The Federal Railroad Administration's regulations preempt any local speed restrictions on trains. (Section 20106 of Title 49, United States Code.)
  • Can a city require a railroad to not blow their horn?
  • The Federal Railroad Administration's rules, 49 CFR 222 and 49 CFR 229, require that locomotive horns be sounded as a warning to highway users at public highway-rail crossings. The final rule provides an opportunity for localities to silence train horn noise by establishing new "quiet zones."   More information on train horns.
  • Who's responsible for maintaining railroad right-of-way fencing?
  • The railroad corporation owning or operating the rail line is responsible for constructing, maintaining and keeping the right-of-way fence in good repair. Fencing issues can be reported directly to the operating railroad. More information on fencing.
  • Where do I get information about railroad abandonments?
  • Information about the current status of active abandonment activities (updated quarterly), past Iowa abandonments dating back to 1911 and a map is available.  The Surface Transportation Board (STB), a federal agency,  has exclusive jurisdiction in railroad abandonment cases except when the railroad company is in bankruptcy. The STB maintains a web site with information on recent abandonment dockets. When available, the docket number of the STB case is provided in the summary reports.  If you need additional information, contact the operating railroad involved in the abandonment or Diane McCauley with the Office of Rail Transportation, Iowa Department of Transportation at 515-239-1670.

  • Can a railroad line be converted to a trail? If so, how?
  • Only rail lines which the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) has authorized for abandonment can be converted to trail use. In accordance with 49 CFR 1152.29 and 16 USC 1247 (d) (the National Trails Act), the STB may defer rail line abandonment to give interested parties the opportunity to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the railroad company for interim use of the right-of-way for recreational trails. Any request for a public use condition under 49 USC. 10905 and any request for a trail use condition under 16 USC. 1247(d) must be filed within 45 days after the abandonment application is filed by the railroad. More information on trails use.
  • Is a railroad required to file an annual report?
  • Yes. All railroads which operate within the state of Iowa, and which are not required by the Surface Transportation Board to file a "R-1 Annual Report" as required by 49 USC 11145, must, in accord with Iowa Code Section 327C.38 and Iowa Administrative Code Chapter 761, Section 800.4, file an annual report with the Iowa Department of Transportation. Annual reports required by the Surface Transportation Board (Class I railroads), are available from the Securities and Exchange Commission (search by company name).

    The annual reports for Class II and Class III Railroads are used jointly by the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa Department of Revenue and Finance. The report consists of both financial and operational data such as a balance sheet, income statement, miles operated, car loadings, and other data.

Highway-Rail Crossing Safety

  • How can I report a highway-rail signal that is not working?
  • At most crossings, a toll free number and the crossing identification is listed on the signal house near the crossing. Use the toll-free number to contact the railroad and identify the crossing by number or location. Or, a list of the appropriate signal malfunction contacts for each railroad is available on this web site.
  • How can I report another type of rail-related emergency?
  • If your car stalls on the tracks, you notice something blocking the tracks, track damage, or anything else that could present a dangerous situation, contact the railroad or your local law enforcement agency who can contact the railroad for you.  A list of the appropriate emergency railroad contacts for each railroad is available on this web site.
  • How can we get flashing lights or gates at a crossing that has only a crossbuck?
  • Active warning devices at highway-rail grade crossings are for the benefit and safety of the motorist. The local highway authority (city or county) and railroad work together to plan an improvement. Either can initiate a discussion on a safety improvement and costs can be borne by either or both parties. The highway authority has the final authority on the type of warning device at a highway-rail crossing.
  • Does the DOT have any funding available for railroad signals?
  • Yes, there are Federal Aid Section 130 Rail/Highway Crossing Safety Funds available for active warning devices, i.e. signals. The fund pays 90% of the cost and the 10% match is provided by the railroad or the highway authority. However, the available funding allows a limited number of safety improvements each year. More information.
  • How is the priority for funding determined for signal/safety projects?
  • The applications for funding are analyzed each year to determine the cost benefit ratio. This complex formula takes into consideration the extent of vehicle and train traffic at the crossing, the speed of trains, certain characteristics of the crossing, the effectiveness of the proposed improvement, the estimated cost of the improvement and other factors. Generally, those crossings with a high probability for a serious crash with a proposed improvement anticipated to be effective and cost efficient will receive the highest priority.
  • How often does the Iowa DOT determine what crossing safety projects will receive Federal Aid Rail-Highway Crossing Safety Funds?
  • Annually. The Iowa DOT's Five-Year Transportation Improvement Program includes projects programmed in the upcoming year. List of currently approved projects.
  • Who can request Federal Aid Rail/Highway Crossing Safety Funds?
  • The railroads and highway jurisdictions throughout the state of Iowa may request safety funds. An application must be submitted by July 1st of each year to be considered in the annual funding cycle.
  • Does the Iowa DOT have jurisdiction over every public crossing in the state?
  • No, the DOT only has jurisdiction over highway railroad crossings on the state roads system. The highway authority, (city or county) has jurisdiction over their respective crossings.
  • Does the Iowa DOT have certain standards for warning signals at highway-rail crossings?
  • The DOT has adopted the Federal Highway Administration's Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Part 8 of the MUTCD contains standards for warning devices at highway-rail crossings. Iowa Administrative Code 761--812.3 describes the appropriate upgrade for projects funded through the Federal Aid Rail-Highway Crossing Safety Program.
  • How can I get information on highway-rail crossing crashes?
  • The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Office of Safety Analysis maintains the crossing crash and inventory information on their website. The Iowa DOT utilizes this information, which the railroads are required to submit to the FRA. Any crash of a highway vehicle or pedestrian with a train, however minor, must be reported. These reports are also available on the web site.

Rail Crossing Information

  • How do we identify a railroad crossing?
  • The Federal Railroad Administration assigns each railroad crossing a unique identification number that consists of six numbers followed by a letter. Each crossing should have an identification tag with the name of the railroad company and the identification number . The embossed metal tag is 4" X 9" and is generally located on the signal or crossbuck post. If you cannot find the identification number, the street name and general location may be sufficient for identification.
  • How can I get information on a particular highway-rail crossing?
  • The Federal Grade Crossing Inventory contains detailed inventory information on each crossing. The crossing number can be used to search the crossing inventory database or you can search by location if you do not know the crossing number. 
  • What is the difference between public and private crossings?
  • A public crossing is the location where railroad tracks intersect a roadway which is part of the general system of public streets and highways, and is under the jurisdiction of and maintained by a public authority and open to the general traveling public.

    A private crossing is one that is on a private roadway which may connect to part of the general systems of public streets and highways but is not maintained by a public authority. Usually, it is a crossing where the property on both sides or at least one side of the railroad tracks is private property. Private crossings are intended for the exclusive use of the adjoining property owner and the property owner's family, employees, agents, patrons and invitees. Crossings are classified as private where the normal need or use is for residential, farm, recreation/cultural, industrial or commercial activities.

    The warning devices specified in Part 8 of the MUTCD are not necessarily applicable to private crossings. There may be no warning signs at private crossings or there may be a stop sign or a crossbuck. More information on crossings.

  • How many public railroad crossings are in the state of Iowa?
  • There are 4,471 public at-grade crossings in the state of Iowa.
  • Are the railroads required to provide private crossings to landowners?
  • The railroads are only required to provide crossings to landlocked property owners. Private crossings are typically established through an agreement by the private landowner and the railroad. Iowa Code 327G.11 requires railroads to construct farm crossings for farming or agricultural purposes.

Railroad Crossing Surface Repairs

  • How do we get a rough rail crossing fixed?
  • Contact the highway authority (city or county) responsible for the particular roadway and ask them to work with the operating railroad company to seek repairs to the crossing.
  • Is there a DOT program that will help a city or county fix a railroad crossing surface?
  • Yes. A state program provides 60% of the project cost to rebuild public highway-railroad crossings. The railroad and highway authority each provide 20% of the project cost. Funding requests for a crossing surface repair project can be made by the city or county and the railroad, through an application form. The applications are funded on a first come/first served basis.
  • What is the typical waiting period to receive funding?
  • The waiting period is approximately four years, due to the large backlog of projects. The state fund receives $900,000 annually from the Road Use Tax Fund.
  • How do projects get chosen or prioritized for funding?
  • Projects are funded in the order in which applications are received.
  • How does a crossing become eligible for the program?
  • All public crossings are eligible for crossing surface repair program funding. When a crossing is identified by the highway authority, (city or county) or the railroad, and each agrees to pay the matching funds an application may be filed. Private roadway railroad crossings are not eligible. More information on surface repair assistance.
  • What can we do in the meantime while waiting for a bad crossing to be funded?
  • Contact the highway authority and ask them to work with the railroad company to seek remedial repairs until the Crossing Surface Repair Program can fund your project request. Railroads are required by Iowa Code 327G.2 to maintain a "good, sufficient, and safe crossings."
  • Who is the DOT surface repair contact person?
  • Mary Jo Key manages the Grade Crossing Surface Repair Programs. Mary Jo can provide you with the name of the operating railroad and the appropriate contact person. Mary Jo can be reached at 515-239-1108.
  • How do we identify a railroad crossing?
  • The Federal Railroad Administration assigns each railroad crossing a unique identification number that consists of six numbers followed by a letter. Each crossing should have an identification tag with the name of the railroad company and the identification number . The embossed metal tag is 4" X 9" and is generally located on the signal or crossbuck post. If you cannot find the identification number, the street name and general location may be sufficient for identification. 

Railroad Development

  • Is there a DOT program that helps a company build a rail spur?
  • Yes. The Rail Revolving Loan and Grant Program provides funding for projects to improve rail facilities that will spur economic development and job growth and preserve and improve the rail transportation system.
  • Is there a state program that repairs railroad tracks?
  • Yes. Projects to repair, rebuild or improve railroad tracks are eligible to apply for funding through the Rail Revolving Loan and Grant Program.
  • Is there state money available to help me buy railroad track?
  • No. The purchase of an existing rail line is not eligible for funding.
  • How much money is available each year for rail development?
  • The amount available is dependent on loan repayments and legislative appropriations. In FY2006, $3.2 million available, but only $1.5 million was available in FY2007.  In FY2008, nearly $4 million was available.
  • How much does it cost to build a rail spur or siding?
  • The cost varies depending on site conditions, track use and the connecting railroad. A rule of thumb for the cost of a rail spur is $100 per lineal foot (not including right of way, grading, engineering or switches.) Contact the connecting railroad for an estimated cost or the Office of Rail at 515-239-1140.
  • Is there a pre-qualified list of bidders for DOT railroad work?
  • The Iowa DOT's consultant coordinator maintains a list of Rail Transportation Planning Consultants, Railway Construction Inspection and Project Management Consultants and Rail Design Consultants who have been pre-qualified to do consulting business for the Iowa Department of Transportation. This information is maintained by Jason Holst at (515) 239-1571.

Railroad Track Inspection

  • How can I express a concern about the condition of a railroad track segment?
  • For the north portion of Iowa, generally north of Highway 30, contact Jeff Secora at 515-239-1688. For the southern portion of Iowa, contact Lindon Bowen at 515-239-1058.

Planning

  • Does Iowa have a Rail Plan and how can I get a copy?
  • The current Rail System Plan developed as part of Iowa in Motion was adopted by the Iowa Transportation Commission on February 8, 2000. The 2000 Rail System Plan is available on line or you can e-mail Craig O'Riley or call 515-239-1669 to get a copy. An updated rail system plan is currently in progress.