Local Officials Doing Battle With Railroad
Trains blocking intersections for up to an hour, train engines idling for nearly eight hours within 1,000 feet of homes and crossing gates closing when no trains are present are only a few of the complaints elected officials representing Chicago's 19th Ward and Evergreen Park have regarding CSX Transportation.
In a seven-page letter this year to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and other members of the Illinois congressional delegation, state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago; state Reps.Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, and Fran Hurley, D-Chicago; Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton and Chicago Ald. Matt O'Shea, 19th Ward, express frustration bordering on anger with CSX's refusal to rectify problems that have been recurring for nearly three years.
The problems seem to have begun with CSX's 2013 acquisition of the Elsdon Line, tracks that run from Munster, Ind., through the south suburbs and into Chicago.
CSX executives initially made numerous promises that trains would move more quickly through the local communities, that noise would be mitigated and the railroad would work to rectify any problems that arose, according to the elected officials.
"But they've increased the number of trains from about five a day to 23 a day," Sexton said. "They had promised us there would be no disruption to traffic, no extensive delays, but just the opposite has happened. We've had traffic delayed for as much as 90 minutes in the last couple of years as trains just sit in (an) intersection and don't move. We have crossing gates that go down for no apparent reason, except a mechanical malfunction.
"The problem is the same train will stop and block traffic on 95th Street and 94th Street at Kedzie Avenue," Sexton said. "Those are the two main intersections through our community. And 95th Street is the main road used by ambulances to get to Christ Hospital, the primary trauma unit for the south suburbs and the South Side of Chicago. Minutes are vital when your transporting a person by ambulance, and we're talking about blocking traffic for an hour or more. Little Company of Mary Hospital (in Evergreen Park) is on the same street."
Sexton said he was unaware of any ambulance patient whose death could be directly attributed to such a traffic delay.
"But that's just a matter of luck because the delays are prolonged and frequent, and you know someday it's going to happen and that will be an avoidable tragedy," the mayor said.
Sexton said that from his office window in Village Hall, 9418 Kedzie Ave., he once saw a man get off his bicycle, climb underneath a stopped train while dragging his bicycle behind him, crawl out the other side, get on his bike and ride away.
"People get frustrated and do stupid things," he said. "I see schoolchildren climbing through and crawling under stopped trains all the time."
Cunningham said during conversations with CSX officials they have explained to him that part of the problem is with train traffic over which they have no control.
"There is no Federal Aviation Administration for railroad trains," he said. "They don't have to get approval from some oversight agency to run a train at a specific time through a certain area.
"So what happens is that trains from all over the country come through Chicago, and the trains on the CSX tracks have to stop and wait for traffic to clear up ahead. Sometimes their trains can't get into the railroad switching yard, which is why they have their trains idling overnight in residential areas.
"That's not fair to the families who live in those homes, and we keep telling them they're going to get some relief, based on the promises of the railroad company, but nothing ever happens," said Cunningham, who represents the Beverly and Mount Greenwood communities in Chicago and Evergreen Park, among other areas.
Cunningham, like many of the other elected officials I spoke with, said he has talked to CSX officials many times about the problem, and promises are always made but rarely kept.
"They have no respect for local officials," he said of the railroad representatives. "We have absolutely no authority over the railroads. Once upon a time, years ago, Chicago would issue tickets to trains that blocked an intersection for an extended period of time, and they would have to pay hefty fines. But that power was taken away from local governments. All we can do is complain to the (federal) Surface Transportation Board, which basically was given oversight authority of the railroads, and hope they do something."
In an emailed statement Tuesday evening, CSX spokeswoman Gail Lobin said the railroad has been trying to "improve train movements in the Beverly and Morgan Park" areas.
"CSX and the rail industry have seen significant operational improvement overall in the Chicago region," Lobin said. "There are some remaining areas of congestion, including along the Elsdon Line, that impact these neighborhoods. Recent operational adjustments have been made, and we continue to look for the best manner in which to safely and efficiently move goods while also being a good neighbor.
"We apologize for the disruptions and will continue to focus on making additional progress to minimize interruptions to residents and the community."
But O'Shea said he's "beyond frustrated" with CSX.
"They basically laugh at us local officials," he said. "Not to our faces. We've had all kinds of meetings and telephone conversations with them over the last three years (a conference call with CSX's chief operating officer occurred within the last few weeks), and they are always very polite, always tell us the problems will be corrected, always apologize. Then they do nothing. Nothing happens. So you know they don't care because there's nothing we can do about it.
"(Last) Sunday and Monday night around 6 p.m., we had trains just sitting in intersections as traffic backed up for blocks," O'Shea said. "Motorists become frustrated and start driving like crazy through side streets in our communities, like mice trapped in a maze. It's a very dangerous situation.
"It makes people late for work, children late for school, people late coming home. And then you have gates that don't work. They simply close, and traffic is stopped and there is no train coming."
O'Shea noted that another set of CSX tracks connected to the Blue Island line is under repair at 95th and Rockwell streets, causing more problems.
"So now you have traffic backing up at 95th Street, traffic backing up on 103rd Street and 111th Street, and sometimes there's simply no way to get around it. You're just locked in," he said.
O'Shea, Cunningham and Sexton said people in their communities have lived with rail crossings their entire lives. Traffic delays have been an inconvenience but generally accepted.
"I'm not opposed to commerce," O'Shea said. "I'm not anti-railroad. I understand we need transportation to get products to market in this country. But someone in charge ought to be listening to the complaints of people and trying to respond to them. That's not happening. We're being ignored. And for some of this stuff, there is no reasonable explanation at all."
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-3rd, said he plans to meet with CSX's chief operating officer on Wednesday and spoke to the Federal Railroad Administration a few weeks ago about the problem. He also hopes to get the Surface Transportation Board involved.
But as for Cunningham's lament that there is no FAA for railroads, Lipinski said that's because they are different.
"Airlines don't own air space, and they don't own airports," Lipinski said. "Railroads own their properties, and the government doesn't have the same authority to intervene when it comes to scheduling. But there are ways to work with them in certain areas, and we are certainly planning to do that."
O'Shea said that while Durbin and Lipinski have been trying to help, calls and letters to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-1st, "have produced no response at all. I don't think Rush has ever returned one of my phone calls about CSX. He's done nothing."
Rush's office could not be reached Tuesday for comment on O'Shea's remarks or the frequent rail crossing tie-ups.
Almost since the first piece of track was laid in the United States, there has been an ongoing battle between railroads and the public.
In Illinois, rail transportation is considered one of the chief economic assets of the region. The Southland long has been considered the crossroads of railroad traffic in the country.
But if scheduling is a problem, the federal government ought to find a way to intervene for the good of rail transportation as well as communities such as Evergreen Park and Mount Greenwood.
Mechanical malfunctions are going to happen. But in this era of technological revolution, railroad gates should not be closing for half an hour without someone being alerted to the problem and fixing it quickly.
Congress needs to intervene, find out why such problems happen repeatedly and find a remedy.
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