Norfolk hears of train frustrationsMarch 11, 2021
By CANDY NEAL
HUNTINGBURG — Trains sitting on the railroad track for a long time, blocking traffic on U.S. 231 and even Chestnut Street, still frustrates a lot of people.
Councilman Jeff Bounds, who lives on U.S. 231 just south of the track sees and hears the frustrations a lot.
“People know I’m there, so they call me,” he told Derek Sublette, regional vice president for government relations for Norfolk Southern Corp., Monday evening. “I’ve had people whiz into my driveway to complain in person.” And Bounds understands their frustration, he said.
Sublette was at the Huntingburg Common Council meeting Tuesday to hear grievances and answer questions.
“The Mayor impressed on me that there have been some times where he’s had some constituents that have been very frustrated with our operations here,” Sublette said. “And I can empathize. I'm frustrated with their operations right now.”
Mayor Steve Schwinghamer said he received several calls this past Friday and Saturday about the train stopping on the tracks between 4:30 and 5:50 p.m., which is during rush-hour traffic.
“Everybody's trying to get someplace,” he said, “and then it (the train) just sits there.” He asked that the time the train comes to the city be adjusted so it won’t be during that heavy traffic time.
Sublette said that can be researched. “I'll see what I can do when we change how we operate the network,” he said. “That can have pretty drastic implications for both upstream and downstream, especially on a single-track railroad. Stopping a two-and-a-half-mile long train even a mile shorter than where we normally would can back up the network significantly.
“That's not to say we can't make operational adjustments,”Sublette said. “It just means you might be impacting a community over in Illinois. I'm happy to investigate that.”
Many have asked the city to fine the railroad company. But municipalities cannot do that legally, City Attorney Phil Schneider said.
“There used to be a statute that prohibited a train from blocking an intersection or crossing for more than 10, 15 minutes,” he said. “But that was declared unconstitutional because it's an area that's occupied by the federal government. All states and local are preempted; we can't regulate that.
“There is the Federal Railroad Administration that you could complain to,” Schneider said. “There's also your your congressmen and senators. You can lobby for a change in the law.”
As of now, drivers can let the Federal Railroad Administration know their concerns and complaints about trains sitting on the tracks too long. Complaints can be registered at the administration’s website, https://www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings. People can identify the location of the crossing on the map or enter the individualized crossing number, which is located at each crossing.
“We are very cognizant of that,” Sublette said. “We monitor this to see where we might have complaints that are really bubbling up, so that perhaps we can modify our operations.”
Sublette mentioned that recent cold temperatures have been challenging for the railroad. “It's not good for diesel engines; it’s not good for our crews; it's not good for the railroad, generally,” Sublette said. “Network operations have been not where we want them to be right now. So that being said, hopefully with this warmer weather, the network will kind of reset, and we'll get some network fluidity.”
But the issues, concerns and complaints started well before that, which Sublette acknowledged.
“The position of our yard here is not ideal,” he said. "Unfortunately, when the road was constructed, towns, ultimately grew up around the railroad. And so we have to find a way to live together. That's not to say that you guys have to just suffer through our poor performance. I want to take some comments back to our transportation department and see if there's a way that we can improve the situation here.”
Councilman Tim Wehr said he has noticed the length of the trains becoming longer and asked if there is a possibility that they will be shortened again. Sublette said the trend among many railroad companies is to have longer trains.
“We receive operational efficiencies by running longer trains,” he said. “We're starting to make investments in our network and our infrastructure to accommodate those longer trains.”
Currently, there is no limit on the number of cars that can be linked together as one train, Sublette said.
Bounds said people believe the trains are now sitting longer on the tracks because the city has a bypass. Sublette said the people dispatching the trains would have no idea there is a bypass.
“All our trains are centrally dispatched in Atlanta,” Sublette said. “I would venture to guess that the dispatcher in Atlanta really has no idea that there was a bypass constructed. So I don't think that that has any bearing on the change you might have seen.”
Council members also talked to Sublette about getting the trains to not constantly blow their whistle in the middle of the night, and about getting additional signage to alert drivers of the train being at the crossing.
The council also:
• Heard from Utility Superintendent John Reutepohler that the cost the city pays for natural gas did not increase with last month’s snow and ice incidents that affected gas companies in Texas. The city, like many other utilities, gets its gas from companies in Texas. The city’s normal base rate is $4 Mcf, or per one thousand cubic feet of natural gas. February’s average was $3.70 Mcf, Reutepohler said.
• Rezoned land just south of the future Chestnut Gardens duplex, which will be on Chestnut Street near 17th Street. The land’s zoning was changed from Residential 2 to Business 2 to allow for the creation of two assisted living buildings just south of the future duplexes, called Beehive Homes of Huntingburg.
• Approved annual computer service and network monitoring contracts with Eck Mundy.
• Heard that the city’s proposed unified development ordinance will be reviewed by the Huntingburg Plan Commission at its March 22 meeting, which is when the public hearing on the ordinance will be held. If the commission approves the measure, it will be presented at the council’s March 23 meeting for final approval. Both meetings start at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 508 E. Fourth St. The council’s meeting is also streamed online.
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