Banned railroad crossings snarled cities, but Congress would take no action

Freight trains often stop and block York, Ala. roads, sometimes cutting through two neighborhoods for hours. Emergency and healthcare workers cannot get in, and those trapped inside cannot get out.

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

Residents have voiced these complaints for years to Southern Norfolk, which owns the tracks, and to regulators and members of Congress. But the problem worsened.

Freight trains often block roads across the country, a phenomenon that local officials say has steadily worsened in the past decade as railroads run longer trains and leave them parked on tracks at crossings. Obstacles can shift School dropouts In nightmares, local businesses are starved of customers and Prevent emergency services of reaching out to those in distress.

The problem has persisted despite many federal, state, and local proposals and laws because the freight rail industry wields enormous political and legal power.

Courts have overturned many state laws seeking to penalize railroad companies for obstructing traffic, ruling that only the federal government can regulate railroad crossings. There are no federal laws or rules that penalize railroads for blocking crossings, and congressional proposals to address this problem have failed to overcome opposition from the railroad industry.

a Bipartisan bill Introduced in Congress in March, after the Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, called on regulators to issue rules for trains carrying hazardous materials that would “reduce or eliminate prohibited crossings.”

But that provision was stripped before the Senate Commerce Committee advanced bill in May. The legislation, which is awaiting a vote by the full Senate, will now only require a study from the National Academy of Sciences on prohibited crossings.

Railroad lobbyists argued the ruling was unrelated to the issues raised by the Ohio accident and pressured sympathetic senators to remove it, according to four people familiar with negotiations on the bill.

Speaking on the day of the committee vote, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the #2 Republican in the Senate and former railroad lobbyist, blasted the transit ban. “This bill should have been about safety reforms related to derailment in eastern Palestine, but has now been expanded into a stalking horse for onerous regulatory mandates and union giveaways,” he said.

The four people said senators who supported the provision agreed to remove it to gain 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 Canada National. The US Railroad and the Association of American Railroad, a trade group, have spent about $454 million on federal lobbyists over the past two decades, according to a New York Times analysis of federal lobbyists’ disclosures. That’s about $30 million more than the four largest airlines and their respective business groups.

Mr. Thune has received about $341,000 in campaign contributions since 2010 from railroad employees and political action committees, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics. He served as director of the South Dakota State Railroad from 1991 to 1993 and served as a lobbyist for several companies including the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad for two years after a failed Senate bid in 2002, according to filing forms.

The senator declined to comment.

The Senate’s unwillingness to confront the railroad industry came as no surprise to Daniel Lipinski, a former House Democrat from Illinois.

In 2020, ft law Project It would have placed limits on how long railroad companies could block crossings, and imposed penalties on trains that exceeded those limits. Idea made it into a file home infrastructure bill. But the Senate removed the provision after the Association of American Rail said it “would lead to unintended consequences, including network congestion and reduced service.”

“State or local governments can’t do anything,” said Lipinski, now a consultant and fellow at the University of Dallas and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “The federal government isn’t doing anything about the crossings, and that’s the way the railroads like to keep it.”

The Infrastructure Act, which was passed in 2021, has already been introduced Grants for “Railway Crossing Abolition” projects, primarily for laying roads under or over tracks. Local officials said the grants would repair only a small number of crossings that are often closed by freight trains.

There is no exact account of how often the more than 200,000 railway crossings in the country are crossed by trains. People can make reports to a website operated by the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 30,803 reports last year, up from 21,648 in 2021.

Texas, Ohio and Illinois had the highest number of accidents. Some bans may be reported more than once, but local officials maintain that the database greatly reduces bans. Yorkers say they usually do not report prohibited crossings.

In response to questions, the Association of American Railroads attributed the closed crossings to local governments, which it said routed routes through railroad tracks rather than over or under them, an approach other industrialized nations have taken.

John Gray, senior vice president of the association, said in a statement that the railways had taken steps to reduce the impact of the crossing ban. “The real solution is not a matter of technology or operational practices either by railroads or public agencies,” said Gray. “It is an investment in public infrastructure similar to what has been done in the rest of the developed world for more than a century and a half.”

Local officials and some railroad employees said this interpretation served their interests. They associate the increase in restricted crossings with the pursuit of greater profits—Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern made $96 billion in profits in the past five years, up 13 percent from the previous five years. The profit margins of large railroads greatly exceed those of companies in most other industries.

In search of greater efficiency, the railways ran longer trains. As a result, when these trains are hauled, assembled, and switched at rail yards, they often travel into nearby neighborhoods, blocking roads, local officials and workers said.

The crews have a better sense of the space occupied by the shorter trains, said Randy Fannon Jr., vice president of the Brotherhood of Trains and Engineers Association, who also oversees the task force on safety. Longer trains are more difficult to maneuver on single-track railways. These railways have sections of track, or sidings, where trains can turn sideways to let other trains through, said Mr Fanon, but those sections are not large enough for very long trains.

“If you have two 5,000-foot trains or a 10,000-foot train,” he said, “you cut your use of the locomotive in half and the train crew in half.” “That’s what it’s all about – profit.”

In York, trains stop and roads close when they use a siding that runs through the city. Residents say the company can transport siding to the surrounding countryside. The Railway Association has been included in the list New aspects as a way to deal with restricted crossings in its own materials.

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

Connor Spellmaker, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said in a statement that the company worked with York to limit disruptions. When asked if Norfolk Southern could move a side, he declined to comment, except to say the company already uses sideways outside of town and has set up a site to work on problems such as blocked crossings.

“The only way to get rid of stopping at a railroad crossing is to remove the crossing itself,” said Mr. Spellmaker. He noted that Norfolk Southern wrote a letter in February to the Department of Transportation in support of a federal grant application from York to build a flyover and said it would cooperate with York on future grant applications.

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

Officials with the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, one of the department’s agencies, declined to say whether they could issue rules to penalize railroads over blocking crossings. Railroad Department spokesman Dan Griffin said the railroads should solve the problem without being asked.

“The duration and prevalence of prohibited rail crossings is the result of the railway company’s operating practices,” he said in a statement.

The obstacles are relentless in York – sometimes severe.

On a brutal election day in June 2022, a train was stopped for more than 10 hours, forcing many people, some old and sick, to take refuge in an arts centre.

Caroline Turner, 51, said stopped trains have trapped her in her neighborhood several times, making her 30 miles late for dialysis appointments and causing a lot of stress. “I would love to go out there and come back and help my grandparents,” she said.

Most of the town’s residents are black, and some residents said this may explain why railroad crossings are often closed.

Jessie V. Brown, an Army veteran, said of the executives in South Norfolk, “If you really want to see them cringe, tell them, ‘How many communities of white people do that?'” The company declined to respond to Ms. Brown’s statement.

Some officials are pinning their hopes on the Supreme Court.

at least 37 states have laws regulating prohibited crossings, some of which are more than a century old, and many have been overturned by the courts. Ohio, Indiana, and Alabama other countries She asked the Supreme Court to confirm that it may place restrictions on prohibited crossings. The court could decide this fall whether to hear the case.

Kitty Bennett Contribute to the research.