I-TEAM: Longer train lengths causing issues for emergency response in local communities

Drivers who can’t get to work and kids stuck on the way to school. The News Center 7 I-Team has discovered there are trains stopped on the tracks for hours across the country and right here in the Miami Valley.

The I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, found those delays could be putting lives at risk.

This is such a big problem in Ohio that a legal battle made it all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court last year asking whether local officials can issue citations to rail companies for blocked crossings. The court ruled they cannot because federal law overrides their authority – leaving our communities with few options.

When there’s an emergency, response times can mean the difference between life and death.

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“Whether someone’s having a stroke or heart attack, maybe it’s a house fire, minutes matter,” Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson told the I-Team.

But across the U.S., there are times when first responders can’t get to the people who need them.

The News Center 7 I-Team dug through Federal Railroad Administration records and found people across the country reported 30,755 blocked railroad crossings last year. Of those, 3,575 of them were right here in Ohio, ranking the Buckeye State second in the nation for blocked crossings, only trailing the 6,509 reported in Texas in 2022. And those are just the blocked crossings people took the time to report.

Here in the Miami Valley, it’s a big problem in the small community of Campbellstown in Preble County.

“We have had the rail (crews) who will park here in Preble County while (the train) times out between Chicago and Cincinnati,” Preble County Commissioner Rachael Vonderhaar told the I-Team.

County officials told News Center 7 they’ve been working with Norfolk Southern for years on the ongoing problem. The company operates the rail line that runs through Campbellstown.

“They’re blocking multiple crossings,” Sheriff Simpson said. “And at times it’s for several hours, if not 10 or 12 hours, or it could even be a couple of days they sit there.”

The county is now looking at a software program called TRAINFO. It would use sensors to tell dispatchers when either a moving or parked train is blocking a crossing, how long it could be there, and give first responders detours.

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“For us, the rail pretty much cuts the county at a diagonal,” Commissioner Vonderhaar said. “So our emergency responders, depending upon what side they’re in, what emergency they’re going to respond to, we need to have good communication taking place that we can respond timely.”

Preble County negotiated a deal with Norfolk Southern to use money from the company to pay for the technology. If commissioners decide to go ahead with the project, it would not be paid for with taxpayer dollars. The agreement also includes money from Norfolk Southern to cover the cost road construction projects around three railroad crossings the company is working to close in the Campbellstown-area. The work would upgrade roads to help handle the increased traffic flow created by the closed crossings.

“There’s no end in sight as far as we can tell about how far the railroads are willing to go when it comes to the length of trains,” Jared Cassity, the National Legislative Director and Chief of Safety for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) told the I-Team. SMART is the largest labor union representing rail industry workers.

Cassity has concerns about longer trails becoming more common as a cost-saving measure for the rail industry. “It shouldn’t be about time or money,” Cassity said. “It should be about the public and the risk that is involved there.”

When longer trains slow or stop, they block more crossings at once.

“Unhooking at a crossing is a very, very, very difficult process and it’s unsafe for the crew members and it puts major delay into the system,” said Professor Allan Zarembski, the Director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware.

Zarembski has worked in the train industry for decades. The I-Team asked him why the industry has not done more to address the problem. “Is there an easy solution for that? No, there are expensive solutions to that,” Zarembski said.

Safety reform for the rail industry has moved slowly. Only now are Ohio’s U.S. Senators pushing for changes. The I-Team has asked Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, about the timing of recent proposed rail safety changes in our previous investigations.

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“You’ve been in the Senate a long time (16 years). Why hasn’t this become a law before? Why has this legislation taken so long to happen,” Bedell asked Brown in an interview earlier this month.

Brown said train lobbyists have been the most powerful in congress for a century.

“Part of their power is nobody was paying attention,” Senator Brown said. “And I mean, nobody was paying attention to some of the things they do in local communities, dividing communities, holding up traffic, sometimes preventing fire stations, fire departments to get across the tracks, whatever.”

Brown and Senator J.D. Vance are co-sponsoring The Railway Safety Act of 2023. Among other proposals, it includes new requirements to help prevent blocked railroad crossings.

“I don’t think that a long train is inherently a problem,” Senator Vance told the I-Team. “You just have to make sure you have the proper safety precautions in place when you have a longer train.”

“We can all apologize that we didn’t get stuff done earlier,” Senator Brown said. “But we also know that the railroads too often had their way with Congress and too often had their way with the regulators. And we need to fix that and we need to work on this.”

The rail industry has fought proposed changes over the years. Professor Zarembski says that’s because legislators often write bills without first consulting industry experts to see what’s feasible. In this case, Norfolk Southern told the I-Team it will support some of what’s in the Railway Safety Act.

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