Blocked crossings a concern for county

A car crosses the railroad tracks on Fairground Road in Warren County on Friday. County officials are in talks with Norfolk Southern Railroad representatives to find ways to limit wait times at railroad crossings blocked by trains. Rich Cooley/Daily
Doug Stanley
Daniel T. McEathron

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County officials are working with Norfolk Southern Corp. and the Virginia Inland Port to fix blocked railroad crossings.

The problems go back more than 10 years, County Administrator Doug Stanley said Friday. Trains would block one of either two roads – Fairground Road or Rockland Road – on their way to local industries and the Virginia Inland Port.

“The issue had been getting worse, say, over the last six months,” Stanley said.

In one week in January intersections remained blocked for 30 minutes to an hour on three occasions, Stanley said. Elementary school pupils who had bus rides of more than an hour already saw their trips increase by 45 minutes or so.  Stanley called the two-hour bus rides “untenable.”

County resident Teresa Flessner lives near the tracks and said Friday that the problem is getting worse. Trains block crossings at the two roads as well as Ashby Station Road – all three used by county school buses – at least two or three times a week. Blockages occur mainly after schools let out in the afternoon, she said.

“But the problem is you get kindergartners on the bus that’s already a long ride that’s 40 minutes-plus, and then they’re stopped at a railroad track for 40 minutes,” Flessner said. “There’s no place for them to go to the bathroom.”

Flessner said people she has talked to with the railroad say they don’t know when a stopped train is blocking a crossing. Technology should exist that would tell operators if a train is covering a road, Flessner said.

Virginia law states that such delays at railroad crossings should not last longer than 5 minutes unless the train is broken down, after which time a deputy could issue a ticket to the engineer, Stanley said.

“We realize they need to be able to get access to deliver train cars to the port,” Stanley said. “At the same time, we’ve gotta resolve this issue of significant, lengthy rail blockages.”

With Morgan Ford Bridge closed on Friday due to high water, blocked rail crossings on either Rockland or Fairground Road would hamper the county’s emergency response efforts to the Rockland area, Stanley said.

Trains stop for various reasons, mainly to address safety challenges, David Pidgeon, public relations manager for Norfolk Southern, said Friday. Work on such challenges can take time and, in some cases, steps are federally mandated. Norfolk Southern’s tracks stretch over 22 states and its trains operate 24 hours a day, Pidgeon said. A train can pass through the community at any time of day, he added. The company hears similar concerns from other communities its trains traverse and tries to work with them.

“We have engaged in dialogue with community leaders, with residents and we ourselves are also looking at how can we handle logistics that might be able to improve not only our traffic flow but also traffic flow in the community,” Pidgeon said. “We take our role as a corporate citizen very seriously.”

Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron pointed out that the problem likely occurs in any community in which railroads cross major roads. But he and other officials noticed over the past year or so that delays were getting longer. McEathron set up a meeting Jan. 20 with many of the stakeholders. There were no expectations of solving the problem at the meeting given the scope of the matter and the number of players involved, McEathron recalled.

“But it was a very eventful and very productive meeting we had,” McEathron said. “Everybody’s committed to trying to work towards a better solution or assisting in making sure the roads aren’t blocked for long periods of time when able. Obviously there’s times that the train’s gonna break down or something and that’s just the way it is.”

McEathron said the problem arose not long after he became sheriff 12 years ago.

“The bottom line is nothing’s going to be corrected overnight,” McEathron said. “It’s gonna be a long process. The public’s gonna have to be patient and we will do everything we can to prevent and respond and try to limit some of these blockages.”

Stanley said the “ultimate, long-term solution, which, frankly, we’d talked about a decade ago, it’s still out there, is to construct a grade-separate crossing at either Rockland Road or Fairground Road.”

“That could be a costly proposition,” Stanley said.

Such a crossing could be either a bridge over, or tunnel under the railroad, Stanley explained. VDOT has been asked to come up with some preliminary designs and cost estimates. Norfolk Southern has been asked to look at its train schedule for a short-term solution, Stanley said.

Overpasses in other communities have helped, Pidgeon said.

“We also understand that this project can be expensive,” Pidgeon said. “Part of the dialogue we have (in) communities like those there in Front Royal and Northern Virginia is how can we help you find the funding that may be necessary.”

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

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