Freight trains frequently stop and block highways in York, Alabama, sometimes cutting through two neighborhoods for hours. Emergency services and healthcare workers are not allowed in, and those trapped inside are not allowed out.
“People’s livelihoods are in jeopardy because they can’t get to work on time,” said Amanda Brassfield, who has lived in one of the neighborhoods, Grant City, for 32 years and raised two daughters there. “It’s not fair.”
Residents have voiced these complaints for years to Norfolk Southern, which owns the roads, and to regulators and members of Congress. But the problem has only gotten worse.
Freight trains frequently block highways across the country, a phenomenon that local authorities say has steadily worsened in the past decade as railways run longer trains and leave them parked on the tracks at junctions. Blocks can become school dropouts into nightmares, depriving local businesses of customers and prevent emergency services to reach out to those in need.
The problem has persisted despite numerous federal, state, and local proposals and laws because the freight rail industry wields enormous political and legal power.
Courts have thrown out several state laws that sought to punish rail companies for blocking traffic, ruling that only the federal government can regulate rail crossings. No federal law or rule penalizes railroads for blocking crossings, and congressional proposals to address the problem have failed to overcome opposition from the rail industry.
TO bipartisan bill introduced in Congress in March after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, called on regulators to issue rules for trains carrying hazardous materials that would “reduce or eliminate blocked crossings.”
But that provision was stripped before the Senate Commerce Committee. advanced bill in May. The legislation, which awaits a vote by the full Senate, would now only require a study by the National Academy of Sciences on blocked crossings.
Railroad lobbyists had argued the provision was unrelated to the issues raised by the Ohio accident and lobbied sympathetic senators to remove it, according to four people familiar with negotiations over the bill.
Speaking on the day of the committee’s vote, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a former railroad lobbyist, criticized the gated crossing provision. “This bill should have been about security reforms relevant to the derailment in eastern Palestine, but has now been expanded into a workhorse for onerous regulatory mandates and union giveaways,” he said.
Senators who supported the provision agreed to scrap it to garner more Republican support and bolster the bill’s chances, the four people said.
The freight rail industry is dominated by four US companies—Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX, and BNSF—and two Canadian companies, Canadian Pacific Kansas City and Canadian National. US railroads and the Association of American Railroads, a trade group, have spent about $454 million on federal lobbying over the past two decades, according to a New York Times analysis of federal lobbying revelations. That’s about $30 million more than the four largest airlines and their business group.
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 South Dakota’s rail director from 1991 to 1993 and worked as a lobbyist for several companies including the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad for two years after an unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid, according to the disclosure forms.
The senator declined to comment.
The Senate’s unwillingness to take on the rail industry did not surprise Daniel Lipinski, a former Democrat in the Illinois House of Representatives.
In 2020 he presented an invoice that would have placed limits on the amount of time rail companies could block crossings and imposed penalties on trains that exceeded those limits. The idea became a house infrastructure bill. But the Senate removed the provision after the Association of American Railroads said it “would have unintended consequences, including network congestion and reductions in service.”
“State or local governments can’t do anything,” said Mr. 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 how the railroads would like to keep it.”
The infrastructure law, which was passed in 2021, provided Grants for “Railroad Crossing Elimination” Projects, mainly to put roads under or over tracks. Local officials said those grants would fix only a small number of crossings that are frequently blocked by freight trains.
There is no comprehensive record of how often trains block the country’s more than 200,000 rail crossings. People can make reports. to a website maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 30,803 reports last year, up from 21,648 in 2021.
Texas, Ohio and Illinois had the most incidents. Some crashes may be reported more than once, but local officials maintain that the database grossly underestimates crashes. York residents say they don’t normally report blocked crossings.
In response to questions, the Association of American Railroads blamed the blocked crossings on local governments, which it said had routed highways through railroad tracks rather than over or under them, an approach they had taken. other industrialized countries.
John Gray, the association’s senior vice president, said in a statement that the railways had taken steps to reduce the impact of blocked crossings. “The real solution is not a question of technology or operational practices on the part of the railway or public agencies,” Mr. Gray said. “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 railway employees said the explanation was selfish. They link the increase in blocked crossings to the search for higher profits: Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern have made $96 billion in profits in the last five years, up 13 percent from the previous five years. The profit margins of the big railways considerably exceed those of companies in most other industries.
In search of greater efficiency, railways have been running longer trains. As a result, when those trains move, assemble and change at rail yards, they often overflow into nearby neighborhoods, blocking roads, local officials and workers said.
Crews have a better idea of the space taken up by shorter trains, said Randy Fannon Jr., national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, who also oversees its safety task force. Longer trains are more difficult to maneuver on single track railways. Such railroads have track sections, or sidings, where trains can be moved out of the way to allow other trains to pass, but those sections aren’t big enough for very long trains, Fannon said.
“If you have two 5,000-foot trains or one 10,000-foot train, you cut locomotive usage in half and train crew in half,” he said. “That’s what this is all about: profit.”
In York, trains stop and block roads when they use a siding through the city. Residents say the company could move the liner to the surrounding countryside. The railroad association has listed new sidings as a way to address blocked junctions on your own materials.
“They don’t have any incentive” to make that change, said Willie Lake, the mayor of York and a former federal banking regulator.
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said in a statement that the company had worked with York to reduce interruptions. Asked if Norfolk Southern might move the siding, he declined to comment, except to say that the company already uses sidings outside of the city and had created a position to work on issues like blocked crossings.
“The only way to eliminate stopping at a railroad crossing is to eliminate the crossing itself,” Spielmaker said. He noted that Norfolk Southern wrote a letter in February to the Transportation Department in support of York’s federal grant application to build an overpass and said it would work with York on future grant applications.
In June, York learned that its applications for two federal grants had been rejected. “It’s a punch in the stomach,” 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 penalizing railroads for blocking crossings. A railway administration spokesman, Dan Griffin, said the railways should fix the problem without being forced to.
“The duration and prevalence of blocked rail crossings are the result of a rail company’s operating practices,” it said in a statement.
Lockdowns are relentless in York and sometimes extreme.
On a sweltering election day in June 2022, a train blockade lasted for more than 10 hours, forcing many people, some of them elderly and infirm, to take refuge in an arts center.
Carolyn Turner, 51, said stopped trains had trapped her in her neighborhood multiple times, making her late for dialysis appointments 30 miles away and causing her great stress. “I like to go there and come back and help with my grandchildren,” she said.
The city’s population is largely black, and some residents said that might explain why its rail crossings were often blocked.
“If you really want to see them squirm, tell them, ‘In how many white communities do they do this?’” Jessie V. Brown, an Army veteran, said of the Norfolk Southern executives. The company declined to respond to Ms. Brown’s statement.
Some officials pin their hopes on the Supreme Court.
At least 37 states have laws regulating gated crossings, some over a century old, and several have been struck down by courts. Ohio, Indiana, Alabama and other states they have asked the Supreme Court to affirm that they can set limits on blocked crossings. The court could decide this fall whether to hear the case.
kitty bennett contributed research.