- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

With each additional minute motorists spend waiting for trains to pass at crossings, a backlash against railroads is building.
The railroads are benefiting from industry consolidations that have concentrated more and longer trains on fewer rail lines.
But their joy of increased revenue is not shared by motorists who rush to their deaths trying to beat trains through crossings, whose emergency response is lengthened as firetrucks, ambulances or police cars wait for trains to pass, or who try to make it to work on time only to be stalled by lowered crossing gates.
"We have several trains go through here every day," says Frankie Lester, manager of the Gainesville Texaco near the Bull Run Battlefield in Manassas. "There have been a lot of problems with the crossing gates. They'll go down and go up, go down and go up when there are no trains coming. I've seen people get out and hold the gates up to let the cars go through."
The worst times are during the morning rush hour or during special events at nearby Nissan Pavilion.
"There have been some close calls," Mrs. Lester says.
Eddie Chehreh, owner of the Gainesville Mobil at Lee Highway and Route 29, said that in the 20 years he has worked near the railroad crossing, he has seen cars backed up by trains "as far as you can see."
He said one woman who was stopped on the railroad tracks in traffic jumped out of her car to avoid the train that hit it seconds later.
Much of the train traffic in the Washington area has been diverted through the exurbs or onto overpasses that do not disrupt the traffic below.
One exception is the Randolph Road crossing in Rockville used by CSX Transportation trains. Hyattsville has other crossings where traffic stalls from passing trains.
Complaints from motorists are worse around Baltimore and Manassas, where CSX and Norfolk Southern Railways operate terminals.

Lawmakers step in
Members of Congress are listening to complaints of motorists. Bills are pending in both the House and Senate that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to reduce delays at rail crossings along with their safety hazards, particularly when emergency vehicles are blocked.
Sixteen states and many cities have passed laws limiting the time trains can block crossings. Local laws often are overturned in federal courts that say only the federal government can regulate railroads.
"Unfortunately, there is no federal regulation addressing the length of time a train may block a grade crossing," says Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who introduced the Senate bill to reduce crossing delays. "That means the state of Michigan and all of its political subdivisions are now without the authority to provide this regulation and have no other remedy."
When he introduced the legislation, he said, trains sometimes blocked crossings for as much as 45 minutes and states could do nothing about it.
Few would dispute the importance of railroads. The industry carries about 40 percent of the nation's intercity freight, earns about $36 billion a year and contributes much more to the economy through indirect benefits.
"It's a wide range of things," says Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "Computers, television sets, potatoes for french fries at McDonald's. It's just an incredible number of things that move by train that people don't think about."
Without railroads, auto and chemical plants would have to shut down, the coal that powers the nation's electrical grid never would make it to generating plants and highways would be so jammed with big-rig trucks that traffic would come to a standstill. Commuter railroads are the fastest-growing portion of the public-transit industry, carrying about 420 million passengers per year.
In the Washington area, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railroad are the main freight carriers. Maryland Commuter Rail (Marc) and Virginia Railway Express are the primary commuter railroads. Marc carried 5.5 million passengers in 2000 and VRE carried 2.2 million. Amtrak runs the southern end of its Northeast Corridor trains into Union Station downtown.
Even the railroad industry acknowledges problems with crossings.
"The railroads try to work with the communities on it," Mr. White says. "In some cases, though, it's difficult to come up with a solution that is affordable and efficient."
Railroads sometimes relocate tracks or build underpasses and overpasses. Each of the solutions involves construction projects that can be enormously expensive.
"In most cases, the towns grew up around the railroads," Mr. White said. "When they put in their roads, they put them in over the tracks."

Rail deaths down
Nevertheless, railroads have made big strides in improving safety. Deaths from collisions with railroads have dropped from more than 500 five years ago to about 300 a year now, according to the rail safety advocacy group Operation Lifesaver.
"There has been greater attention to engineering factors and in many places increased closing of crossings," says Marmie Edwards, Operation Lifesaver spokeswoman. "Where you don't have a crossing, it's more likely you won't have a collision."
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the nation's second-largest railroad, has a goal of eliminating 420 railroad crossings this year. Last year, the railroad closed 515 crossings.
The railroad is using a "corridor study" to pick out the crossings that can be closed without disrupting its operations. In some cases, BNSF has few alternatives.
"There are a handful of cases across BNSF's network where a crossing is very close to a yard or customer switching track, which can cause additional delays at the crossing," says Greg Stengem, a BNSF vice president in charge of safety.
Commuter railroads are a more recent phenomenon, largely resulting from urban sprawl. Most of their tracks either were installed to bypass intersections with roads or were built with overpasses.
Railroad crossing safety issues and complaints by motorists about long waits "haven't impacted commuter rail as much," says Amy Coggin, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association.
The 1980 Staggers Act is lurking somewhere behind the delays at crossings around Rockville, Hyattsville and Manassas.
Before 1980, railroads were lucky to squeeze any profit out of the 137,000 miles of track across the United States.
Government regulations required them to make deliveries for out-of-the-way shippers on rail lines used about as often as a country road in North Dakota cattle country. In some cases, federal subsidies were the only things keeping them in business.

Supply and demand
But then came the Staggers Act, which deregulated the railroad industry. Now, supply and demand determine where trains run and who owns the railroads.
"It helped the industry compete a little more effectively," says the AAR's Mr. White.
Seldom-used or unprofitable rail lines were abandoned and railroads competed ruthlessly for profits and customers. In the process, small railroads were bought or pushed out of business by larger railroads. The biggest railroads expanded through mergers and acquisitions.
For motorists, that means longer waits at crossings.
The surviving railroads concentrate their trains on the few lines that are most profitable, which usually are around large cities. Competition has produced more customers, and that means longer trains.
Some of the 130-car coal trains can stretch more than 1 mile long. They often unload onto foreign-bound ships at the Port of Baltimore.
The Federal Railroad Administration says freight rail traffic has increased 30 percent in the past decade. At the same time, railroads added nearly 1,000 feet to the average length of a freight train.
Technology has allowed railroads to almost double the capacity of boxcars. The bigger, heavier trains take longer to clear crossings.
More business has come at the cost of a public-relations fiasco. For most people, their only encounters with trains are when they are stopped at crossings.
The people they have voted into office are responding with tough laws to increase fines for railroads that block crossings for long periods of time. A proposed Illinois law would make railroad executives liable for a misdemeanor that could land them in jail.
Sometimes, railroads pay the fines levied against them by states and cities.
Just as often, however, railroads ignore the threats and the fines by states and cities. They argue that railroads are regulated only by the federal government. The state and local governments have no authority over them, they say.
The dispute frequently ends up in courts. Usually, the state and municipalities lose.
Last month, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled Seattle lacked authority to regulate the speed of trains or how long they could block crossings.
The city cited Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway 19 times for blocking traffic in violation of a time limit imposed by city ordinance.
A unanimous decision of the state Supreme Court said the Federal Rail Safety Act of 1970 gave exclusive authority over railroads to the federal government.
A similar ruling was handed down last month in Utah. A federal court ruled that Salt Lake City had no authority to limit Union Pacific Railroad trains using tracks running through the city.
The U.S. Supreme Court agrees federal jurisdiction takes precedence over local authority.
In 2000, a Tennessee court awarded a woman $430,765 in damages from Norfolk Southern after her husband was killed by a train at a crossing. The Supreme Court, however, said the state court had no right to rule in the case.
"What states cannot do once they have installed federally funded devices at a particular crossing is hold the railroad responsible for the adequacy of those devices," Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the court's ruling.
The problem with letting the federal government decide disputes about blocked railroad crossings is that "there are no federal regulations governing blocked crossings," says Robert Gould, recently appointed spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration and previously CSX Corp. spokesman.
Local officials say they are tired of waiting for the federal government to do something and threaten to take action regardless.
The outcome of the dilemma may be decided in the current session of Congress, assuming the House and Senate bills directing the FRA to reduce crossing delays make it to a vote.


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