‘That ain’t good’ | Residents cringe when trains approach crossings

Recent spectacular derailments have focused attention on train safety and whether the nation’s powerful rail companies are doing enough to protect the public.
Trains blocking railroad crossings, sometimes days, are causing dangerous delays in communities across Georgia and nationwide.
Published: May. 8, 2023 at 12:45 PM EDT|Updated: May. 11, 2023 at 3:30 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Trains blocking railroad crossings, sometimes days, are causing dangerous delays in communities across Georgia and nationwide, according to a recent investigation by InvestigateTV and ProPublica.

Recent spectacular derailments have focused attention on train safety and whether the nation’s powerful rail companies are doing enough to protect the public — and whether federal regulators are doing enough to make them, especially as the companies build longer and longer trains.

News accounts chronicle horror stories: Ambulances can’t reach patients before they die or get them to the hospital in time. Fire trucks can’t get through and house fires blaze out of control. Pedestrians trying to cut through trains have been disfigured, dismembered, and killed; when one train abruptly began moving, an Iowa woman was dragged underneath until it stripped almost all of the skin from the back of her body; a Pennsylvania teenager lost her leg hopping between rail cars as she rushed home to get ready for prom.

“I hear the train going by but when you hear that clack, clack, clack, that ain’t good,” Andre’a Swain said. The 66-year-old retiree spends time voluntarily re-routing traffic for hours in his Hunter Hills neighborhood, where neighbors claim a CSX train routinely stops at Chappell Road northwest between Ezra Church and Bernard Street.

According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration, this isn’t uncommon with the nation’s railroad companies. Since December 2019, there have been 2,370 complaints filed to the federal agency about blocked train crossings in Georgia. Sometimes hours, sometimes for days. Witnesses report seeing pedestrians cross between the train carts, businesses losing customers due to no street access, or emergency crews forced to take detours.

Here are the top five Georgia cities based on reported complaints:

  • McDonough: 346
  • Waycross: 260
  • Forsyth: 212
  • Atlanta: 206
  • Savannah: 129

According to InvestigateTV, the Federal Railroad Administration started a public database in late 2019 for complaints about blocked crossings and fielded more than 28,000 reports of stopped trains last year alone. Among them were thousands of dispatches from 44 states about pedestrians, including kids, crossing trains. Someone in North Charleston, South Carolina, summarized the situation in three letters: “Wtf.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg expects to announce the first grants in a new federal program designed to help alleviate blocked crossings. The federal government is putting $3 billion into the program over five years.

State lawmakers have tried to curb blocked crossings by restricting the lengths of trains. Since 2019, in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, and other states, lawmakers have proposed maximum lengths of 1.4 to about 1.6 miles. (There is no limit now, and trains have been known to stretch for two or more miles.) Every proposal has failed to become law.

The Railroad Safety Act would require companies in part to reduce blocked crossings, comply with train lengths and speeds. The U.S. Department of Transportation would issue all safety regulations.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) is also calling for provisions that would provide special attention to projects which eliminate railway crossings in areas near schools and bus routes.

“This disproportionately impacts certain communities, the most marginalized members of our community,” Warnock said. “And to see children throwing backpacks over a train or wondering if it’s safe to crawl under a train—on their way to school. I mean it’s unacceptable.

“Children shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get to school,” he said. “We ought to use on the resources we have available, the technology we have available, to hold the railway companies accountable and to remove these barriers.”

In written responses to questions from InvestigateTV, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said children climbing through their trains concerns the company.

“It is never safe for members of the public to try to cross the cars,” spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said. “We understand that a stopped train is frustrating, but trains can move at any time and with little warning — especially if you are far from the locomotive where the warning bell is sounded when a train starts.”

Rail companies around the country could better coordinate their schedules, parking trains far from schools that are in session. They could also build shorter trains that fit into railyards so their tail ends don’t block towns’ crossings.

On three separate occasions during the fall and winter, reporters witnessed Norfolk Southern trains blocking intersections in Hammond, Indiana, leading to an elementary, a middle, and a high school for four, six, and seven hours. ProPublica and InvestigateTV showed footage of kids making the crossing, including an elementary student crawling under a train, to representatives of Norfolk Southern, lawmakers, and Buttigieg, whose remit includes rail safety.

He was shocked.

“Nobody,” Buttigieg said, “can look at a video with a child having to climb over or under a railroad car to get to school and think that everything is OK.”

DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks with InvestigateTV about regulating blocked railroad crossings and how stopped trains can affect communities of color.

The video also stunned state officials who had long known about the problem. “That takes my breath away,” said Indiana state Rep. Carolyn Jackson, who represents the Hammond area and has filed a bill attempting to address blocked crossings every session for the past five years. None has ever gotten a hearing. “I hope that they will do something about it and we won’t have to wait until a parent has to bury their child.”

The blocked crossing problem is perennial, especially in cities like Hammond that are near large train yards. But in the era of precision scheduled railroading, a management philosophy that leans heavily on running longer trains, residents, first responders, rail workers, and government leaders told ProPublica it is getting worse as trains stretch farther across more intersections and crossings.

“The length of the long trains is 100% the cause of what’s going on across the country right now,” said Randy Fannon, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “No engineer wants to block a crossing.”

A rail administration spokesperson said the agency shares the data monthly with companies. “When railroads fail to act quickly,” and if a crossing is reported as blocked three days in a calendar month, officials will contact a company to determine the cause and try to work out solutions, Warren Flatau said. “We are receiving various levels of cooperation … and welcome more consistent engagement.” Read more about what the agency says it is doing here.

In the meantime, Buttigieg believes federal lawmakers must intervene to give the Federal Railroad Administration the power to compel rail companies to keep crossings clear. This time of intense public interest in railroads has opened a window for action, Buttigieg said, but it is fleeting. “Any moment that the public attention starts to fade, the railroads are then once again in a position to assert themselves in Washington and to ignore some of the phone calls they are getting in the communities,” he said.

Buttigieg said his staff is ready to participate in a federal hearing in which it can tell lawmakers what new authorities they would need to regulate blocked crossings.

When crossings are blocked and there's no way around, kids risk their lives to get to school by crawling through trains that could start at any moment.

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, said she is eager for the new law. A fire chief in her district, which covers parts of the Houston area, told her the department has had to detour 3,200 times since 2019 because of blocked crossings. She and other congressional Democrats introduced the Don’t Block Our Communities Act in early March, but it has not yet gained bipartisan traction. The proposed law would prohibit rail companies from blocking crossings for more than 10 minutes and would allow the rail administration to fine companies for repeated violations.

Until there’s a better solution, the ritual continues. Some parents act as de facto crossing guards, standing beside trains to help their children and others cross. Others ask their kids to call them before and after they make the climb while warning them about the worst that can happen.

Topher Sanders, Dan Schwartz, Joce Sterman, and Scotty Smith contributed to this story. Ruth Baron and Gabriel Sandoval contributed research.