Without federal law, state regulators have little power to stop trains from blocking crossings

By: - March 8, 2019 5:00 am

Three railroad crossings south of Downtown Richmond get blocked by long trains that have stopped for hours at a time. The state is trying to find a way to fix the problem by advocating for a new federal law. (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

To get to her dad’s funeral, Christine Wilson had to crawl under a stalled train so she could be there on time.

“That’s dangerous, no doubt, but what do you do?” her longtime partner, Paul Shiflett, said.

In their community about 15 miles east of Front Royal, a freight train regularly stops in front of their dead-end street. Sometimes the train sits without moving for 30 minutes, but it’s also sat for as long as eight hours.

Virginia is one of 35 states that has a law to limit the amount of time trains can block crossings, according to the State Corporation Commission. The time ranges from five to 20 minutes, depending on the situation.

But rail companies contend that federal commerce laws preempt the state’s law, which is focused on public safety, said Ken Schrad, director of the State Corporation Commission division of information resources.

The only way around that argument is to get a federal law that looks like Virginia’s law, Schrad said.

The State Corporation Commission is “joining a national effort to seek federal help on the growing safety issue of blocked railroad crossings,” a press release from earlier this month said.

“The Association of State Railroad Safety Managers is urging the adoption of federal regulations to limit the amount of time a train may block a highway-rail grade crossing,” the release stated. “The association recently circulated a resolution calling for federal legislation requiring the U.S. secretary of transportation to prescribe regulations making it unlawful for trains to block highway-rail grade crossings for longer than a specified period unless the train is stopped for mechanical or emergency reasons.”

Without a federal change, it’s difficult for the state to take any sort of punitive action against rail companies that don’t follow Virginia law.

Pete Snead, a business owner in Richmond, said trains have blocked his employees from leaving the property for hours at a time. (Courtesy of Pete Snead)

In December 2017, the SCC tried to take action against CSX for 87 instances of blocking crossings, many on East Fourth Street in Richmond’s south side. Business owner Pete Snead painstakingly noted each time a CSX train stopped in front of his business and blocked him in for hours at a time. 

The state wanted to fine CSX for the delays, but the company appealed the decision, according to SCC documents, and the case is still pending.

CSX has been involved with four SCC cases about blocked crossings since 2007. Norfolk Southern, a comparable major rail company, was cited by the SCC in 2012 for blocking crossings in the Danville area for up to an hour and a half. Norfolk Southern paid $3,500 in that case and hasn’t been cited since, according to SCC documents.

Norfolk Southern did not respond to a request for comment.

CSX declined to comment on its pending case. The company also declined to provide details on why trains may need to stop for extended periods of time or how crews try to avoid blocking crossings and instead referred questions to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Snead has figured out that most of the time, a blocked crossing means a shift is ending. He has driven to the site where he knows crews get on and off, about two miles from his business, to ask how much longer the wait will be.

One time, a train stopped for three hours, blocking Snead’s employees from getting home until after 9 p.m. Last year, one of his employees had an asthma attack while a train was stopped. Rescue crews couldn’t immediately get around the train and another employee had an inhaler to help, Snead said.

Eventually, rescue crews were able to drive a small car through a tunnel under the train tracks and access Snead’s property. The tunnel can’t fit anything larger than a small pickup truck and often floods, Snead said.

“I have written letters to congressmen, everyone, to try to get something done,” he said. “If I was doing something and I knew I was causing you problems, I think I’d probably try to find a way to do things. They don’t seem to care.”

Long roadblocks don’t just happen in Richmond, according to SCC data. On March 26, 2016, another CSX train blocked a rural residential intersection with one way in and out in Ashland for five hours.

Employees had reached the end of their shift, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, and it took hours to switch out the workers.

In Hampton Roads, Norfolk Southern trains have blocked access in Norfolk up to 30 minutes at a time. Last May, a Chesapeake school bus driver allowed children to climb over train tracks while a train idled for about half an hour.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.