WASHINGTON — A Chicago alderman told members of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials that the lives of his constituents were being disrupted because of blocked crossings.
During a hearing on Wednesday about grade crossing safety, 19th Ward Alderman Matthew O’Shea told members of Congress about people being late to work and missing doctor’s appointments. In two extreme cases, a bride and groom were late to their own wedding reception and a woman was unable to get to the hospital in time to say goodbye to her grandfather before he died because they were stuck at grade crossings.
O’Shea says Congress should pass legislation that punishes railroads when it blocks crossings for excessive periods of time, noting that agencies like the Surface Transportation Board and Federal Railroad Administration are not doing enough to help his community. “Why is no one standing up for us when the railroads are not being good neighbors?” O’Shea says.
O’Shea represents the neighborhoods of Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park on the southwest side of Chicago, home to CSX Transportation’s Elsdon Line. The line runs through a densely populated area with numerous crossings, including five in O’Shea’s ward. Blocked crossings have long been an issue there and, in 2016, the STB ordered the railroad to reduce delays on the line that leads to blocked crossings. While O’Shea says the number of blocked crossing incidents has gone down in the last few years, it is still a major problem in his community and he blamed regulators for not keeping the railroad in line. “The bottom line here is that the federal government has largely failed us,” he says. “CSX is essentially unregulated from our standpoint.”
The alderman proposed what he called “straightforward measures” the Congress could do to eliminate the problem, including a law that would require moving trains to clear at-grade crossings in three minutes or less and fines for the railroad for every minute a crossing is blocked after the first 10 minutes.
Also in attendance at the hearing was the FRA’s Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety Karl Alexy, the Illinois Commerce Commission’s Rail Safety Program Administrator Brian Vercruysse, Alameda Corridor-East Project Chief Engineer Mark Christoffels, Operation Lifesaver Executive Director Rachel Maleh, and Norfolk Southern Corporation Assistant Vice President, Safety and Environment Jason Morris.
Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) says he believes that longer trains resulting from the Class I railroad’s embrace of Precision Scheduled Railroading were a major contributor to the issue. He and another member, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), peppered the FRA official about why the federal agency wasn’t doing more to reign in train sizes. Alexy says he doesn’t believe that’s the agency’s job. DeFazio disagrees.
“PSR might be good for shareholders but it appears to be causing a whole bunch of problems,” he says.