Warren County officials seek solutions to trains blocking crossings for extended time

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL — Trains passing through town at Rockland Road, Ashley Station Road and Fairground Road have recently blocked traffic for more than 30 minutes on several occasions.

Sheriff Daniel McEathron said track crossings being closed causes a potential issue for fire trucks and rescue vehicles that may need to cross. He added there has not yet been an instance where a train passing through town has delayed emergency vehicles.

School Board member Doug Rosen brought the issue up at a recent board meeting and said that school buses have been stopped for about 40 minutes several times recently at train crossings.

"Unacceptable. Some of these kids are already on the bus for an hour and 15 minutes. So you're talking about a two-hour ride home from school. You're talking kindergartners and the restroom," County Administrator Doug Stanley said.

In an effort to address the issue, McEathron spearheaded a Jan. 20 meeting between representatives from the county, Inland Port and Norfolk Southern Railway.

"We've received more calls over the last year," he said. "I knew the problem was progressing and getting more difficult, so I called this meeting."

Over the years, a push has been made to move freight from trucks to trains, McEathron said. In turn, he said the increased freight has led to longer trains. He added that some trains are so long they can cause two crossings to be blocked at the same time.

"There are eight trains a week that move along the rail lines in question; two of which are servicing the Virginia Inland Port; one inbound and one outbound," said Virginia Inland Port public relations agent Joe Harris.

Harris said Inland Port processed about 37,000 container units, which is a 1.1-percent increase from 2014. He added that there are no operational measures The Port of Virginia can take to expedite the movement of trains.

"This is controlled exclusively by Norfolk Southern Corp.," Harris said.

A representative from Norfolk Southern could not be contacted in time for publication.

Stanley said Norfolk Southern and Inland Port are willing to work with the county on the issue. McEathron echoed that sentiment and said the meeting had good attendance and both Norfolk Southern and the county were receptive of each otherís concerns.

"By having all the appropriate players around the room ... I feel very confident that the group is definitely willing to work together to try and improve the amount of time and the chances of the trains blocking on a regular basis," McEathron said.

Virginia law states that trains cannot block a crossing for more than five minutes. The penalty for an offense ranges between $100 and $500.

McEathron said his office has issued summonses to trains couple of times, but it is not worth the trouble to have an officer walk down the tracks and attempt to locate someone who could receive the summons.

"It makes them pay a fine, and that's OK, but it doesn't move a train," McEathron said.

He added that a $100 fine would not do much damage to a big company like Norfolk Southern.

About 15 years ago, Stanley said county officials met with Norfolk Southern and were able keep most of Inland Portís trains passing through town between 10a.m. and 2 p.m.

"So we minimized the impact on the community from that standpoint. But longer trains, changing schedules has pushed that into 3, 4 o'clock time frame which puts us right in the middle of our afternoon bus schedule," Stanley said.

Stanley said the county is looking at short term and long term solutions to the railroad issues, and that the ultimate solution is a grade separation crossing, where cars would go over the tracks. He said VDOT is committed to examining preliminary costs.

"That's 5 to 10 years down the road. We need to figure out what to do today. We're sitting, waiting right now for a response back from Norfolk Southern on what they can do in the short term to address the problem," Stanley said.

Harris said a short term solution discussed at the meeting was opening the lines of communication between the Norfolk Southern trainmaster and local public safety and school transportation officials. He added that the port is willing to partner with Norfolk Southern to review the existing train schedule.

Harris said that Virginia Inland Port has attracted 39 manufactures and distribution centers to the region, which brought in more than 8,000 jobs. So while an increased cargo may block traffic, it also grows business development opportunities.

McEathron said going into the meeting he knew there would be no quick fix. He added that it is not unusual for trains to block roads, that it will never be fully preventable, and it is not an issue unique to Warren County.

"It's frustrating, but I think no matter what it is in any kind of traffic, patience goes a long ways. I know everybody is in a hurry. At some point they just have to exercise patience," McEathron said.

He added that in no situation should people attempt to physically cross the track while it was blocked.

McEathron encourages citizens who are blocked by a stopped train to continue contacting the Sheriff's Office so they can keep an accurate record of when it occurs.

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