BNSF work crews spent time last week cutting down and mulching brush and weeds from the railroad right-of-way between Longcommon Road and Harlem Avenue in Riverside. | Bob Uphues/Editor

The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad, whose three sets of tracks slice through the middle of Riverside and a dozen other west suburban communities, embarked recently on what’s being called a “cleanup/safety initiative.”

To be sure, crews have already begun clearing significant swaths of shrubs and weeds – anything less than 6 inches in diameter within the BNSF right-of-way, 30 feet on each side of the tracks. They started near Longcommon Road, where the western boundary of the work areas ends, and will continue east all the way to Harlem Avenue over the next few weeks.

“The work … should wrap up by the end of the year,” said Peter Skosey, executive director of public and government affairs for BNSF, in an email. “The work is exclusive to Riverside and sparked by conversations with the town in an effort to clear up debris and improve safety in the corridor. No grade crossings will be affected.”

Plans also call for plugging gaps in what have become fairly solid fence lines –courtesy of East Burlington Street and East Quincy Street residential and commercial property owners – in that stretch of railway.

Where there are no existing barriers, the BNSF plans to install either guardrails or sections of 4- to 6-foot-tall fencing along the railroad’s property lines, which were marked by high-visibility pink ribbons atop wood stakes that have been hammered into the ground.

Prior to that work, the railroad surveyed the land and marked its property lines with stakes topped by pink ribbons. The survey revealed a number of encroachments by residential property owners into railroad property over the years, ones the railroad will address in the coming months. | Bob Uphues/Editor

According to a work area survey obtained by the Landmark through the village, the plan indicates the BNSF will erect wood fencing. In a communication from the village of Riverside emailed to the public on Nov. 28, the new fencing is described as chain link.

A solid barrier along the entire length of the right-of-way from Longcommon to Harlem will deter pedestrians from wandering onto the tracks.

In addition, at grade crossings, the railroad will erect vehicle gates to help ensure vehicles don’t drive off the roadway and onto the tracks – which has been known to happen occasionally.

The BNSF work area survey also indicates five sections of fence within the railroad right of way which will be removed, a detail that hints at a larger effort by the railroad to reclaim its entire right-of-way through that section of Riverside, one that may end up impacting more than two dozen private properties that have, in one form or another, encroached onto railroad property over the decades.

In some cases, homeowners took the opportunity to enlarge their backyards by extending fences into the right-of-way. In other cases, property owners have used the right-of-way for parking, have placed sheds there, extended driveways, or have built garages there.

For now, any of the encroachments in place before Nov. 28 will remain untouched by this round of BNSF work. However, that could change in the future, Skosey confirmed in a phone interview last week.

“We’ll definitely have to circle back, but we wanted to get a clear picture of what was there,” Skosey said. “We’ll touch base with individual landowners early next year.”

In some cases, removing encroachments could be as simple as moving a picnic table or smaller structures, like sheds. But some encroachments might be more of a headache.

Skosey indicated that the railroad “may be able to do a lease.” If that won’t work, the railroad could seek removal of the encroachments.

“It’ll be on a case-by-case basis,” Skosey said.

Asked if he had an estimate of just how many properties could be impacted, Skosey said, “We have not done a hard count yet.” 

However, a glance at the BNSF work area survey shows potentially more than 30 such encroachments, with many being backyard fences extending into the right of way, particularly between the Cowley Road and Herbert Road grade crossings. The BNSF still is trying to confirm who owns what appears to be three sections of right-of-way on the north side of the tracks.

Village officials have not always been able to flag situations where property owners put up fences on railroad property, since those areas are pretty well shielded from street view and dense shrubbery has hidden possible offending structures even from train view, where they are sometimes caught.

Village Manager Jessica Frances said she hoped the work BNSF is doing along its right-of-way will help limit such issues in the future.

“Having their [new] fencing there will be helpful,” said Frances. “Riverside is unique in that it has a lot of [residential] properties along the rail line.”

Frances said it was her understanding the BNSF will begin to erect new fencing in mid-December.