Rail crossings blocked in cities, but Congress won’t act

Rail crossings blocked in cities, but Congress won't act

Freight trains stop frequently and go to York, Ala. They block U.S. streets, sometimes cutting off two neighborhoods for hours. Emergency services and health care workers cannot enter, and people trapped inside cannot get out.

“People’s livelihoods are at risk because they can’t get to work on time,” said Amanda Brasfield, who has lived in the Grant City neighborhood for 32 years and raised two daughters there. “This is not right.”

Residents have aired these complaints for years to Norfolk Southern, which owns the track, and to regulators and members of Congress. But the problem has gotten worse.

Freight trains frequently block roads across the country, a phenomenon local officials say has gotten steadily worse over the past decade as railroads run longer trains and park them on the tracks at crossings. Obstacles can be removed Leaving school In Nightmare, starve local businesses of customers and stop emergency services By reaching out to people in distress.

The problem persists despite numerous federal, state and local resolutions and laws because the freight rail industry wields enormous political and legal power.

Courts have struck down several state laws seeking to penalize railroad companies for blocking traffic, and have ruled that only the federal government can regulate railroad crossings. No federal laws or regulations penalize railroads for blocking crossings, and congressional proposals to address the issue have failed to overcome rail industry opposition.

A bipartisan bill It was introduced in Congress in March after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, called for regulators to issue rules for trains carrying hazardous materials that would allow “obstructed crossings.” reduce or eliminate.”

But that provision was struck down before the Senate Commerce Committee. advanced Bill in May. The legislation, which awaits a vote by the full Senate, would now require only the National Academy of Sciences study on blocked crossings.

According to four people familiar with negotiations on the bill, railroad lobbyists had argued that the provision was unrelated to the issues raised by the Ohio accident and pressured sympathetic senators to remove it.

Speaking on the day of the committee vote, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a former railroad lobbyist, criticized the blocked crossing provision. “This bill should have been about security reforms relevant to derailment in East Palestine, but has now been extended to tough regulatory orders and horse chasing for union gifts,” he said.

Four people said the senators who supported the provision agreed to withdraw it in order to garner more Republican support and boost the bill’s chances.

The freight rail industry is dominated by four American companies – Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX and BNSF – and two Canadian companies, Canadian Pacific Kansas City and Canadian National. American railroads and the Association of American Railroads, a trade group, have spent about $454 million on federal lobbying over the past two decades, according to a New York Times analysis of federal lobbying disclosures. That’s about $30 million more than the four largest airlines and their business conglomerates.

Mr. Thune has received about $341,000 in campaign contributions from railroad workers and political action committees since 2010, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics. According to disclosure forms, he served as railroad director for South Dakota from 1991 to 1993 and worked as a lobbyist for several companies, including the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad, for two years following an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2002.

The senator declined to comment.

The Senate’s reluctance to take on the rail industry was not surprising to former House Democrat Daniel Lipinski of Illinois.

In 2020 he introduced a bill This would have set a limit on how long rail companies could hold the crossing, and would have imposed fines for trains that exceeded that limit. this idea made it a House Infrastructure Bill, But the Senate struck down this provision when the Association of American Railroads said it would “lead to unintended consequences, including network congestion and service cuts.”

“There’s nothing state or local governments can do,” said Mr. Lipinski, who is now an advisor and fellow at the Hoover Institution at the University of Dallas and Stanford University. “The federal government is doing nothing about the crossing, and the railroad would like to keep it that way.”

The infrastructure law, which was passed in 2021, provided Grants for “Railroad Crossing Elimination” Projects, mainly to build roads under or over the tracks. Local officials said those grants would fix only a few crossings where freight trains were often blocked.

There is no accurate count of how often trains block the country’s more than 200,000 level crossings. People can create reports on a website operated by the Federal Railway Administration, There were 30,803 reports last year, up from 21,648 in 2021.

The highest number of incidents occurred in Texas, Ohio and Illinois. Some obstructions may be reported more than once, but local officials argue that the database greatly underreports obstructions. York residents say they generally do not report blocked crossings.

In response to questions, the Association of American Railroads attributed the blocked crossings to local governments who, it said, had the roads crossed instead of over or under the railway tracks, an approach that other industrialized countries had adopted.

John Gray, senior vice president of the association, said in a statement that the railroads have taken steps to reduce the impact of blocked crossings. “The real solution is not a question of technology or operational practices by railroads or public agencies,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s a public infrastructure investment that has happened in the rest of the developed world for more than a century and a half.”

Local officials and some railway employees said the explanation was selfish. They link the increase in blocked crossings to the pursuit of big profits – Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern have made $96 billion in profits over the past five years, up 13 percent from the previous five years. The profit margins of large railroads are much higher than companies in most other industries.

In search of greater efficiency, railroads are running longer trains. As a result, when those trains are transported, assembled and switched at rail yards, they often spill over into surrounding areas, blocking roads, local officials and workers said. .

Randy Fannon Jr., national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, who also oversees its safety task force, said workers have a better understanding of the space that small trains occupy. Long trains are more difficult to operate on single-track railroads. Mr Fannon said such railroads have sections of track, or sidings, where trains can separate to allow other trains to pass, but those sections are not large enough for very long trains.

He said, “If you have two 5,000-foot trains or one 10,000-foot train, you cut your locomotive usage in half and your train crew in half.” “It’s all about profit only.”

In York, when trains use sidings passing through the city, they stop and block roads. Residents say the company may relocate the siding to the surrounding countryside. Railroad Association has listed New sidings as a way to deal with blocked crossings in your content.

“They have no incentive to make this change,” said Willie Lake, mayor of York and former federal bank regulator.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said in a statement that the company has worked with York to minimize disruptions. When asked whether Norfolk Southern might relocate the siding, he declined to comment, except to say that the company already uses the siding outside the city and needs to work on problems such as blocked crossings. The situation has been created.

Mr Spielmaker said, “The only way to eliminate stoppages at railway crossings is to eliminate the crossing itself.” He said Norfolk Southern wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation in February in support of York’s federal grant application to build the overpass and said it would cooperate with York on future grant applications.

In June, York learned that his applications for two federal grants had been denied. “It’s a punch in the gut,” Mr. Lake said.

Officials at the Department of Transportation and one of the department’s agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration, declined to say whether they might issue rules penalizing railroads for blocking crossings. Dan Griffin, a spokesman for the railroad administration, said the railroad should address the problem without need.

“The duration and prevalence of the obstructed railroad crossing is the result of a railroad company’s operational practices,” he said in a statement.

Stoppages in York are frequent – and sometimes excruciating.

On a raucous election day in June 2022, train blockades lasted more than 10 hours, forcing many people, some old and sick, to take refuge in an arts centre.

Carolyn Turner, 51, said she was stuck in her neighborhood several times because of stalled trains, making her late for a dialysis appointment 30 miles away and causing a lot of stress. “I love going out there and coming back and helping my grandchildren,” he said.

The city’s population is mostly black, and some residents said this may explain why its railroad crossings were often blocked.

“If you really want to see them squirm, tell them: ‘How many white people’s communities do you do that?'” Army veteran Jesse V. Brown said of the Norfolk Southern officers. The company declined to comment on Ms Brown’s statement.

Some officials pin their hopes on the Supreme Court.

least 37 states have laws regulating blocked crossings., some are more than a century old, and the courts have overturned many of them. Ohio, Indiana, Alabama and other states Have asked the Supreme Court to confirm that they can set limits on blocked crossings. The court may decide this fall whether it will hear the case.

kitty bennett Contributed to research.

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