Parked rail cars an unwelcome neighbor in Lakeville

Lakeville rail cars
There are an estimated 451,000 freight rail cars nationwide that companies aren't using because of the economic downturn. The cars are being stored in communities across the country, including Lakeville. The city has more than 300 rail cars on its tracks.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

Due to the bad economy, about 300 empty rail cars parked on the tracks around parts of suburban Lakeville, and it's a scene that's become familiar in cities and towns around the country.

Green railroad cars tattooed with graffiti line the main thoroughfare in Lakeville. The rail cars stretch along the city's open fields in an unbroken line and snake through wooded neighborhoods full of sprawling homes.

They also stand adjacent to Pam Steinhagen's backyard.

"We built our homes here knowing that there'd be train activity, and probably saw the train three times in 15 years," Steinhagen said. "Never did we ever envision train storage facility in our backyard. Never. Pardon me but it looks trashy. I wouldn't have moved here if I had known."

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A company called Progressive Rail began parking cars in the town two years ago.

"We've got people in this neighborhood whose homes are in foreclosure and who've lost their jobs and people don't want to buy because the trains are here," she said.

Steinhagen said the unlocked cars are a draw for area teens. Police have issued about two dozen trespassing citations since this summer.

Pam Steinhagen, Theresa Johnson
Lakeville residents Pam Steinhagen (right) and Theresa Johnson (left) own homes that stand next to railroad tracks. The tracks were barely used until two years ago, when Progressive Rail began using the line to park unused rail cars. There are now more than 300 empty rail road cars stored on tracks in Lakeville.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

"The kids park, young adults from other neighborhoods and Lakeville too, and they go back to the boxcars and do things that are illegal," she said. "Before someone does get hurt, we want to say we've done everything we could."

People call Steinhagen the Train Lady and she's become a spokeswoman for Lakeville's anti-rail car movement.

The community is one of many across the country dealing with hundreds of parked rail cars. In a way, the cars are a physical reminder that important areas of our economy haven't improved yet.

Several industries that usually move goods around by rail have been hit hard by the recession. They're not selling as much, so they're not transporting as much. The rail cars they usually use are sitting empty.

The American Association of Railroads said in a normal economy companies have about 30,000 cars in storage. Right now, that number is at 451,000.

Rail car graffiti
Residents complain the cars are unsafe, foster crime, and sport graffiti that's an eyesore.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

"Wherever they can park cars is where they're parking them right now," said Dave Fellon, president and owner of Progressive Rail. "These issues come across the nation; it isn't just progressive rail."

Progressive leases the tracks that run through Lakeville, and they're renting those tracks as storage space to big railroad companies and businesses that own their own rail cars.

"[It is] really no different than just parking your own automobile in a parking ramp," Fellon said. "You're paying for the use."

Fellon won't say how much his company charges to store cars. He said storage fees only make up a small portion of Progressive's income.

And that's enough to make Pam Steinhagen feel like Progressive is profitting from the misery of others.

"Why should we have a city that's [a] dumping ground for their rail cars, and they're making money on it," Steinhagen said.

Still, the rail cars have to go somewhere. Fellon said there's no where else. "As soon as the economy picks up, out the door they go. We'd like to see them back to work," he said.

Fellon's aware that he could come off as the bad guy.

"I try to remind people that the railroad is good," he said. "It brings a lot of revenue to the community coffers. That helps keep their taxes low. Progressive rail has done a number of things for the city of Lakeville, but we also have to take care of our customers too. So it's a double-edged sword."

Either way, the city can't do much because the railroad is federally regulated. And Lakeville's director of economic development, David Olson, said there's no evidence the city's economy or property values have been affected by the cars.

"It doesn't add to the community's aesthetics necessarily, but you know it's just a fact of life that our community was built along this rail line," Olson said. "It's something we'd prefer it not be there, but I don't think it's changing the image of the community necessarily."

Still, the Lakeville city council has adopted a resolution asking Minnesota's congressional delegation to look at ways rails cars can be kept out of residential areas.