OPINION: Some Atlanta residents still feeling railroaded

Residents across metro Atlanta are fed up with lack of response from major railroads on blocked rail crossings. In some neighborhoods, the crossings have been blocked for time periods ranging from several hours to several days. AJC Staff Photo.

Credit: Pixabay

Credit: Pixabay

Residents across metro Atlanta are fed up with lack of response from major railroads on blocked rail crossings. In some neighborhoods, the crossings have been blocked for time periods ranging from several hours to several days. AJC Staff Photo.

After I wrote about blocked rail crossings in a southeast Atlanta neighborhood last week, comments poured in from readers who are similarly frustrated with practices of the two major railroads running through metro Atlanta: Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation.

In my previous column, a resident of Lakewood Heights described rail crossings blocked by Norfolk Southern trains for time periods ranging from several hours to several days. The nearest overpass has been under construction for months and with trains long enough to block several crossings at once, there are limited routes to get around it.

That resident thought he was in the minority among neighbors who wanted, or expected, something to be done about trains sitting on the tracks, but he was wrong.

“There is definitely a sense that there is nothing we can do,” said Jeff Delp, transportation chairperson for the neighborhood planning unit that includes the area impacted by the rail crossings in southeast Atlanta.

Delp lives in the area and operates a small market and cafe, Carver Market and Community Grounds, not far from the crossing at Hank Aaron Drive.

He has watched his customers and employees, as well as students from nearby Carver High School, walk between stopped train cars to get to the other side. Last week, one of his employees crawled over a stopped train at 10:45 a.m. to get to work on time. Walking around it would have sent the employee at least a half-mile out of the way, Delp said.

The next day, he watched students race across the tracks as the crossing gates came down because they didn’t know if the train would stop and block them from crossing entirely.

“We regret whenever anyone is inconvenienced by a blocked crossing,” said Thomas Crosson, spokesperson for Norfolk Southern. “It is a real issue that we work hard to minimize, but it is also fairly evident that it is a reality that exists when permanent tracks cross roads.”

It is illegal to cross train tracks outside of designated public rail crossings, but these scenes have played out in communities nationwide and they don’t always end well. In 2020, there were 1,901 highway-rail grade crossing collisions and 1,085 pedestrian rail trespass fatalities and injuries, according to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), including 144 total incidents in Georgia.

The issue has been so prevalent that the FRA sent letters to more than 160 railroad leaders asking them to consider avoiding blockages at crossings. In December 2019, the FRA launched a Blocked Crossing Incident Reporter website where the public and law enforcement could report the date, time, location and duration that a crossing was blocked.

Tyler Caulk, a resident of Adair Park has the same concerns with trains on Atlanta’s southwest side. “The train sometimes sits on the tracks for days at a time. There is no warning as to when the trains are moving,” Caulk said. “For anybody who has to walk to the MARTA station, their only choice is to cross the tracks.”

Neighbors have crossed blocked rails on mobile scooters and with strollers to get from the residential side of the neighborhood to the business district and MARTA station on the other side, he said.

The community has asked for and supported a pedestrian overpass, but that would require cooperation between the city, state and railroad companies — as well as money — to make it happen, Caulk said.

Georgia and Alabama are the only states that have never passed a law limiting time or imposing fines for blocked railroad crossings, according to a Bloomberg survey.

A Georgia bill that would have imposed time limits and fines never made it out of the transportation committee in 2019. A similar bill was re-filed in the House in January 2021 but hasn’t gained much traction. Several states that did impose fines or time limits for blocked crossings found themselves on the losing end of lawsuits filed by rail companies or the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s lobbying arm.

But outside the courtroom, railroads haven’t had as much favor.

Employment in the rail industry was relatively stable for nearly 25 years before the period spanning Nov. 2018 to Dec. 2020, when rail jobs declined by 40,000.

One of the biggest reasons cited in a federal review for the employment decline is an operational strategy adopted by CSX, Norfolk Southern and other major railroads. Though the model has satisfied investors by reportedly delivering lower operating margins and higher revenues, it has also resulted in employee shortages and customer complaints.

In November, federal regulators sent a letter to Norfolk Southern asking for an explanation of the railroad’s deteriorating performance metrics and the rise in complaints from shippers. A similar letter was sent to CSX in October. Norfolk Southern responded in December with plans to address service via employee recruitment and retention, Crosson said.

How does this trickle down to communities? The new operating model allows railroad companies to run fewer, longer trains, and the average train length has increased, according to the federal review. Longer trains block more rail crossings for longer time periods and make it difficult to find an alternate route. Some help may come with the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently signed into law by President Biden which provides funding to eliminate dangerous rail crossings and to study the impact of trains longer than 7,500 feet.

“The entire transportation and logistics industry is experiencing a perfect storm of challenges, and we’re not immune to those,” Crosson said.

Delp said he understands that some rail logistics can’t be controlled. What he doesn’t understand is why Norfolk Southern hasn’t come to the table to discuss alternatives with the community, such as stopping the train south of the Hank Aaron Drive intersection. “It is a heavily utilized pedestrian crossing for which there is no easy workaround.”

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