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SIOUX CITY | The train passes by, much too slowly for those of us stuck at the train crossing.

Car after car, little to break the monotony of black tankers and brown boxcars.

Then, surprise.

There's a boxcar covered with colorful words and images.

It's a diversion while waiting at the crossing.

"I think it's a great self-expression," said Paul Chelstad, a Sioux City artist who painted graffiti art in New York in the 1980s. "It's like a moving art gallery for these artists no matter where they are. They move around and get seen a lot. If you do it on a wall, it just sits there."

Chelstad enjoys the colorful distractions while waiting at railroad crossings.

"Doesn't everybody like that?" he asked.

Not railroad companies. Not railcar owners.

To those in the rail industry, that creativity is illegal, dangerous and expensive.

"What I think (when seeing it) is someone put themselves at risk. It's defacing private property," said Amy McBeth, a BNSF Railway spokeswoman. "In order to put that on a railcar, somebody has to be trespassing on railroad property, which is dangerous and illegal."

The elaborate graffiti takes time to paint, meaning someone spent a lot of time putting themselves at risk of serious injury, even death, among the tons of steel sitting on the tracks.

"For us, if someone has done that, they've put themselves in a dangerous situation. That's our main concern," Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Mark Davis said.

Davis and McBeth both said railcars sitting in railyards can move at any time, underscoring the danger of standing on tracks or cars while painting. It's also costly to clean up.

"It's expensive for companies to repaint those cars," McBeth said.

Steve Masters, vice president of operations for Transco Railway Products, a national railcar repair company that operates a site in Sioux City, said it can easily cost $1,000 to paint the lower half of a railcar on each side. Car owners spend thousands of dollars annually to paint over obscene or offensive graffiti.

Graffiti that covers railcar identification numbers and other important information also must be painted over so those numbers are visible, though more artists seem to leave the numbers alone so their work might stay on the cars longer, Masters said.

It's up to car owners to decide whether to paint over graffiti, Masters said. If the graffiti doesn't cover up identification numbers, owners usually leave it alone, especially if it's particularly creative.

"There's some true artists out there that are wasting their talents on railcars. It's amazing what they can do," he said. "We wish they'd do it somewhere else."

Sioux City police Lt. Mark Kirkpatrick said calls to the department about railcar graffiti are rare, and he couldn't remember the last local arrest linked to it. Someone found on railroad property would face trespassing charges, in most cases a misdemeanor. Painting graffiti on a railcar would likely result in a criminal mischief charge, which, depending on the cost of the damage, can range from a simple misdemeanor and a $65 fine to a class C felony and fines up to $10,000 or 10 years in prison.

He said most of the graffiti seen on railcars in Sioux City likely was painted elsewhere, places with large railyards where cars sit for long periods of time.

Davis said Union Pacific operates in 23 states, and graffiti is found on trains in every one of them.

Masters said his company's shops notice more graffiti, some of it gang-related, originating in urban areas. Cars on routes from say, Minnesota to Oklahoma, don't get painted as much.

All railroads can do, Davis said, is increase surveillance to catch or deter would-be graffiti artists.

Davis said some of the graffiti he sees on railcars is neat, but it's still illegal and most of all, dangerous.

"A person that would place graffiti on a railcar or rail structure is doing an unsafe act," he said.

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