Town officials react to railroad crossing closure

FRONT ROYAL – Town officials said Monday they received little notice about last week’s closing of a busy railroad crossing.

When Norfolk Southern Railway closed its crossing on Shenandoah Shores Road to make improvements, traffic was disrupted and Mary’s Shady Lane area residents were blocked from leaving or re-entering their neighborhood. Crews eventually did reopen the crossing for limited periods to allow traffic to move through the construction site.

Town Council members and Town Manager Steve Burke discussed the situation at a work session this week. Town officials and council members received many calls from residents upset or confused by the closing. Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe suggested the town seek better notice from Norfolk Southern.

“I don’t know if there’s anything the town or council can do to send a message that we need to have more communication [from the railroad company],” Tharpe said. “A lot of people don’t have laptop computers, they don’t have Internet, they don’t have a lot of stuff we have in town, especially in the Shores and Mary’s Shady [Lane] and on the outskirts of town.”

Burke said the town has a couple of contacts with the railroad company and can let them know council wants the operator to provide as much advance notice on closings as possible.

Councilman Daryl Funk expressed sympathy for the affected residents.

“My concern would be I don’t want to send too much of a nasty-gram back to the railroad because, I mean, they can just continue to do stuff like this to us and they could make it worse and there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Funk said.

Funk suggested the town reach out to U.S. Congressman Bob Goodlatte for help.

Tharpe lauded the town employees for their efforts to keep residents informed.

“There was a lot of confusion and I think staff did an excellent job handling the multitude of calls,” Tharpe said.

Tharpe also asked Burke to explain, at least for the public, who closes the crossings and sets the times during which the road reopens and residents are informed of the potential impact of the closure.

“What do we do as a town since we don’t have any say-so over these closings?” Tharpe asked. “I just want to get it out in the public that the town is working to the best of [its] ability with the information that we’re given by the railroad to accomplish safety goals.”

Town officials met with Norfolk Southern representatives a week before the closure and received a firm date for the work, Burke said. Representatives with fire and rescue and law enforcement were invited to the meeting initiated by the railroad company. Warren County school officials also were invited at one point because there was concern the closure would continue into the beginning of the school year, Burke said.

“[Norfolk Southern] told us we had a week to plan,” Burke said.

Front Royal Police Chief Norman Shiflett, Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron and Richard Mabie, chief of the county Department of Fire and Rescue Services, came up with a plan to put staff on the north side of Shenandoah Shores to respond to incidents. The town and the railroad company worked on a plan that would let emergency vehicles go around the work zone.

“Thankfully, Norfolk Southern did reach out to us because typically we don’t receive notice of any of the closures when they’re doing work,” Burke said. “Typically we just simply have to react that day.”

The railroad didn’t give advance notice to the town when it closed Happy Creek Road or Manassas Avenue to perform work on the crossings, Burke recalled.

The town doesn’t issue permits for work on the crossings because the railroad owns the right-of-way, Burke said.

“They made it abundantly clear to us that we have no say and that when they come in to do work we just have to react,” Burke said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com