Tracking trains: Communities contend with blocked crossings

SANDUSKY The wheels of the trains supposedly go 'round and 'round, but local communities dealing wit
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

The wheels of the trains supposedly go 'round and 'round, but local communities dealing with blocked railroad crossings tell a different story.

Bellevue and Clyde appear to issue the most citations to Norfolk Southern, with other communities often giving the rail company a pass as disgruntled drivers sit and wait.

In 2006, a banner year for complaints, Bellevue cited Norfolk Southern railroad 365 times for blocked crossings. The problem doesn't seem quite as prevalent this year -- six citations have been issued thus far in August. Once the citations go to court, though, the fines are often slashed by the judge.

This standoff between the railroads and residents has no clear solution.

Norfolk Southern, which has trains cutting through area communities, says it's just doing its job while traffic backs up and citations are issued.

A national safety organization sees the problem worsening as the distribution of goods via railway increases.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said the company is aware blocked crossings can be a thorn in drivers' sides, especially at the Venice Road crossing in Sandusky. Because it abuts a rail yard where crossing trains are not permitted to exceed 10 mph, the location is notorious for backed-up traffic.

Husband said as long as a train is moving -- even at a crawl -- the railroad is not violating the law. He said a basic operation at train yards is adding cars, which can cause trains to back up on nearby tracks.

Husband expressed doubt about the severity of congestion at the crossing, calling complaints "anecdotal."

"I have to question just how serious the problem is," he said.

Bellevue: Slashed citations

Bellevue police Chief Dennis Brandal said of nine railroad crossings in the city, the one at County Road 308 sees the most violations. Since it crosses one of the company's yards, drivers are often subjected to stationary trains. In extreme cases, the tracks can be blocked for an hour or more.

Police officers must wait five minutes before an obstructed crossing becomes a $1,000 violation. But those violations often have no teeth. Of this year's 150 cases already heard in the village's municipal court, 69 were dismissed. The fines for the remainder were reduced to $150 each.

Bellevue Municipal Judge Kenneth Fox did not return calls seeking comment about why some violations were thrown out and fines were reduced on the others.

Brandal said he has met with Norfolk Southern officials about the situation, but "it's nothing they have control of. It's a matter of logistics -- the way the road and the yard are placed. Most of the other major crossings are not blocked as regularly."

Because the community has learned to adapt, Brandal doesn't get many complaints.

"People pretty much have become adjusted to the fact that if it's blocked, they turn and go the other way," he said. "It's a chronic problem, and it's annoying because it adds mileage to your route."

Clyde: Grain trains

Train blockages in Clyde vary. The first-degree misdemeanor can occur as often as once a week or once every three weeks. The wait averages an hour, although on one Saturday afternoon a crossing was blocked for 2 1/2 hours.

"We get tons of calls to move (a) train," police Chief Bruce Gower said. "We can't move the train. All we can do is issue tickets."

He estimates about eight citations have been issued this year. Where the village could once issue a ticket for every 15 minutes a crossing was blocked, a change in the law three years ago now limits it to one ticket for the duration. For that reason, not many tickets are issued.

"We're getting the wrath, and there's nothing we can do about it," Gower said. "We don't have any jurisdiction over it. They can block the tracks. They can sit there for 24 hours, and we can't do any more than issue a ticket."

The expansion of the Sunrise Cooperative grain elevator in the past five years contributed to more grain trains chugging through the area.

"As the elevator has grown it's become worse," Gower said. "There's good and bad to it. It's good for the economy. But with 20,000 or more cars going through Clyde every day, it doesn't take long before it starts backing up."

Clyde Municipal Court Judge John Dewey said each infraction costs the railroad $150 plus court costs, and the fines are routinely pursued. He said a clause in federal legislation offers railroads a loophole to avoid fines, but as a compromise the railroad elects to pay them.

Huron: Time cushion

The city of Huron last issued a citation to Norfolk Southern on June 16, 2007.

The gates at the Rye Beach crossing were down, even though the train was stopped further up the track. Traffic backed up almost to the Ohio 2 entrance and exit ramps.

The police department warned the railroad to move the train as a police officer directed cars around railroad flashers. The train didn't begin moving for at least 45 minutes.

More than 90 trains travel the area's five crossings each day. Police Chief Randy Glovinsky said the department must flag traffic across the crossings six or more times a year. Because of the infrequency, and because the process takes officers only up to half an hour, a police report usually isn't issued.

"We'll allow (the railroad) time if the train has an emergency," he said. "If it takes half a day for someone to get there, then yes, we'll issue a citation."

Experts cite safety concerns

A national organization believes blocked crossings are dangerous, especially after dark, and will become an even bigger issue in the future.

"Ohio certainly is very congested with train tracks, and these are issues coming to the forefront," said Patricia Abbate, executive director of Citizens For Rail Safety. "It's something we need to start looking at seriously for solutions.

A Federal Highway Administration study in 2006 concluded crossing delays may rise by up to 18 percent within 20 years, representing more than 64.4 million additional hours lost annually for cars and 9.9 million more hours annually in delays for trucks at grade crossings.

That could increase the amount of carbon monoxide spewed by those idling vehicles at crossings by 29,000 metric tons.

When you pair those statistics with traffic deaths and injuries that have occurred from blocked crossings, the severity of the problem is evident, Abbate said.

Abbate said municipalities, private industry and communities must cooperate with railroads to find solutions.

"It's dangerous especially at night in remote locations where there are no gates or lights," Abbate noted. "Also in congested traffic. Commuters try to take an alternate route, and it causes accidents."

She said this will be an ongoing issue considering that rail distribution is now considered the cleanest and most economical transportation system.

Husband said if communities have issues with Norfolk Southern, "it's our preference to work through them, not through newspapers. The communities we operate through know how to get hold of us. We're perfectly willing to work through it with them."

Crossing criteria

According to the Uniform Vehicle Code of the Federal Railroad Administration, which is not binding:

* Except under special circumstances, trains should not block crossings for more than five minutes.

* The majority of states place restrictions on how long a railroad crossing can be blocked, none exceeding 20 minutes.

* Some states impose fines ranging from token amounts to a few thousand dollars for each occurrence.

* On occasion, railroad companies have mounted preemptive defenses based upon federal regulations and requirements they believe outweigh state laws and local ordinances.