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The legislation would mandate a study of frequently blocked crossings, among other safety measures.
City leaders are cheering changes to rail safety legislation working its way through Congress that would take a small step toward addressing one of their top frustrations with freight carriers: trains that block road crossings for long periods of time.
The issue became a top priority for Congress following the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. Several cars began leaking vinyl chloride, which ignited, forcing thousands of local residents to evacuate. As a bipartisan group of senators craft a response, much of their focus has been on safety measures—like wider deployment of wayside detectors that can identify overheating axles—that might have prevented the Ohio spill.
But lawmakers have used the opportunity to push other safety-related provisions, like mandates for two-person crews, that the rail industry has consistently resisted. The freight rail industry has long been a powerful force on Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans, so chances to impose new requirements on rail carriers have been rare.
Local officials notched a small victory last week when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation adopted an amendment that, among other things, deals with blocked crossings. Specifically, the bill requires the National Academy of Sciences to study frequently blocked crossings in at least 10 states within two years. The report would include suggestions about ways to prevent crossings from being obstructed.
Julia Merlo, a spokesperson for the National League of Cities, said it was important for Congress to address blocked crossings in the rail safety legislation. They are “just as troubling as derailments due to how many other safety issues are created by blocked crossings,” she said.
Nationwide, there are nearly 200,000 grade crossings, where roads intersect railroads at ground level, though that number represents a decrease of 15% since 2005, according to the railroad industry.
Local officials complain that stopped trains prevent ambulances and other emergency vehicles from getting to their destinations, not to mention preventing people from getting to work, shopping or visiting doctors. Children have climbed through or crawled under trains on their way to school.
The public has reported more than 26,000 instances of stopped or slow-moving trains halting traffic in the last year. In more than a sixth of those cases, first responders could not move across the tracks. Pedestrians walked over, under or through trains in order to reach their destinations in nearly a quarter of those instances.
Local government leaders would like even farther-reaching measures in the Senate bill, Merlo said, but they wanted to make sure the resulting bill would get signed into law.
President Joe Biden’s hallmark infrastructure law, which drew bipartisan support, contains a provision that prevents the Federal Railroad Administration from using data it collects from the public about blocked crossings for “any regulatory or enforcement purposes,” Merlo noted.
“Tying the FRA’s hands behind their back on the blocked crossings issue was clearly done at the railroads’ behest to limit the FRA from addressing this serious safety issue,” Merlo wrote in an email. “While [the National League of Cities] could support additional action on a bipartisan amendment to blocked crossings in the bill because it is a safety issue of consequence, we must continue to seek to keep this bill moving in a bipartisan manner so that it can be passed and sent to the president’s desk for signature.”
Merlo also noted that 18 states have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold an Ohio law putting limits on how long freight railroads can block road crossings.
A spokesperson for the American Association of Railroads said the call for a study in the Senate bill was a “reasonable provision” and called it “encouraging” that the study would include the impacts on the broader freight networks of any actions to discourage blocked crossings.
“Railroads are aware of their impact on communities, particularly grade crossings, and empathize with those who may be affected by train movements. Safety will always be our top priority. The issue is both complex and broad given the sheer size of the rail network, and facts vary based on the community in which railroads are operating. Public policy should reflect this and should not be a one-size-fits-all model,” the AAR spokesperson said.
As the debate continued in Washington, government officials in Houston on Monday called attention to the persistent problems caused by stopped trains on the city’s East Side.
“Blocked crossings are a rail safety issue that’s happening in Houston and thousands of other communities across the country,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Mayors, council members and fire chiefs are doing everything we can using technology, adding fire houses, doing overpasses and underpasses. But it’s not enough.”
Councilmember Robert Gallegos pointed out that, of the 2,800 complaints registered in Texas about blocked crossings in 2021, some 1,300 came from the East Side of Houston. Gallegos called part of the area a “train trap triangle,” because it is surrounded by three rail lines. At times, stopped trains hem in neighbors and even prevent firefighters from a local fire station from leaving.
Fire Chief Samuel Peña told reporters that fire crews have to change direction because of a blocked train, on average, 90 times a month.
Anne Junod, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., who has studied rail safety issues across the country, said blocked rail crossings were one of the top complaints she heard from local officials in her research.
“Anecdotally, I heard it from every single one,” she said, “especially in the rural communities that are smaller. They only have two or maybe three points of crossings across the community… Functionally, these communities are cut in half.”
Another major concern local officials raised with Junod was getting information on the types of materials being shipped through their communities.
“There’s no industry requirement, or even just practice, that rail lines have to notify communities or jurisdictions when they’re moving highly hazardous materials through,” she said. So when a derailment occurs, local first responders scramble to get information from railroads about what was on board, because it could affect how they fight fires or protect residents.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said shortly after the East Palestine derailment that the Biden administration is working on formal rules that will require railroads to share more information with those communities.
It’s critical that railroads need to provide the information ahead of time, Junod said, rather than after a derailment. “The bottom line is that even just 20 minutes to half an hour of notification that anhydrous ammonia or vinyl chloride is headed down the tracks allows for first responders to have systems already in place … in the event of an accident.”
Again, those precautions are especially important in rural areas, which see a disproportionately large percentage of train derailments, she said. That’s where most of the track owned by freight rail companies is located, and it is where train inspections are less frequent, Junod explained.
The Senate legislation also now includes language to require the U.S. secretary of transportation to consider whether the length and weight of trains is affecting the safety of trains carrying hazardous materials. The National League of Cities is pushing for a study on train length, as longer trains become more common throughout the industry.
In order to reduce costs, freight railroads have been moving toward a concept called “precision railroading,” which involves fewer crews running longer trains on tighter schedules. That means that individual trains are often two or even three miles long. The train that derailed in East Palestine had 149 cars and three locomotives. Another Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Springfield, Ohio, in March had 212 cars.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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