Chugging along: Blocked rail crossings signal good economy?

Blocked rail crossings signal good economy?

By J Swygart -

Automobiles are stopped as a locomotive cross North Sugar Street in Lima.

Automobiles are stopped as a locomotive cross North Sugar Street in Lima.

Craig J. Orosz | The Lima News

LIMA — The link between the city of Lima and the railroad industry is long and storied.

For three quarters of a century, the Lima Locomotive Works was one of the city’s leading employers. Over the course of its lifetime — which corresponded with the golden age of railroads in America — the company produced more than 7,500 locomotives, ranging from conventional steam engines to the Shay-geared locomotives that would become Lima’s trademark.

According to authors Eric Hirsimaki and Raymond F. Shuck, each of whom has written extensively on the company, the production of train engines at the Lima Locomotive Works ceased in 1951 as the decline of the railroad industry took its toll on the city.

These days when Lima residents discuss trains, such talks often revolve around railroad crossings that are blocked, sometimes for long periods of time, by stalled or slow-moving trains.

It’s a frequent occurrence throughout the city and, in the eyes of a growing number of motorists, it’s becoming a real pain in the caboose.

Laws that can’t be enforced

Until last year, Ohio law limited the amount of time trains could legally block a crossing to five minutes, except for emergencies. State statutes allowed for fines of up to $5,000 if a crew left a train unoccupied while blocking a street. Local communities also had the legal authority to issue citations to railroad companies for lengthy crossing blockages.

But a ruling in April of last year by Judge James Carr of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio put existing laws on hold. After CSX Transportation Inc. filed a lawsuit against the city of Defiance, claiming the company shouldn’t have to pay fines for blocking roads there, the judge ruled that Ohio law regulating the obstruction of roads by trains “is pre-empted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995.” Carr ruled the city of Defiance could no longer prosecute CSX for violations of the Ohio law.

Lima City Law Director Tony Geiger said the federal judge’s ruling left Ohio municipalities with “no ability to enforce the laws that are on their books” regarding excessive rail crossing blockages. Lima police officers have been told they cannot issue citations to trains who exceed the five-minute limit, he said.

But that does not mean cities have zero recourse.

“What we do is that if we feel the rail line is abusing its timeline by blocking crossings, we contact their people and encourage them to be good corporate citizens” and keep such blockages to a minimum, said Geiger. “And (rail companies) do make good-faith efforts to do that. Obviously they don’t do everything we’d prefer they do, but they don’t thumb their noses at us, either.”

Howard Elstro, director of public works for the city, said all citizen complaints his office receives regarding rail crossing issues are forwarded to the Public Utilities Company of Ohio. “They sometimes get involved as an intermediary and can often extract more cooperation (from railroad officials) than we can,” Elstro said. “At other times we simply call the rail line’s yard master and see why a particular crossing is blocked.”

Prospering economy to blame?

While Howard Elstro the motorist finds stalled trains blocking his path to be every bit as annoying and frustrating as any other area resident, Howard Elstro the public official sees a reverse side of that coin.

“The better the economy, the more complaints we get,” he said. “More trains means the economy is doing well. We’ve recognized that for years in Lima, which is what moved us to do the Elm Street separation project.”

After the recession ended around 2008, the city was in a position to take advantage of federal funds that were available through the Obama-era American Revitalization and Reinvestment Act 2009 to do the project, Elstro said.

The Bellefontaine Avenue/Elm Street/Calumet Avenue intersection is traveled by more than 35,000 vehicles each day, according to city figures. To improve traffic flows in that area the city has begun a $13.8 million project that includes lowering Elm Street by 20 feet to go beneath the I&O Railroad. The project is to be finished in November 2019. Once completed, Elstro said delays caused by stopped or slow-moving trains will be reduced significantly in that portion of the city.

Matt Dietrich is the executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission. He is familiar with the Lima landscape, having served as an intern earlier in his career with the Lima Allen County Regional Planning Commission.

“Lima has been a major rail hub for years,” said Dietrich. “Lima and the railroads grew up together.”

He said some of the issues that result in blocked rail crossing blockages stem from “multiple “touch points” — locations where railroads cross each other — throughout the city.

“One of the problem locations we’ve identified is the intersection of the CF&E and I&O railroads at Sugar Street. We are working on obtaining a federal grant to upgrade that intersection — basically it will be like putting a traffic light in — that should alleviate some of the crossing blockages in town,” Dietrich said. “At least it’s our hope that it will.”

Eighty trains a day

The Chicago, Fort Wayne and Eastern railroad (CF&E), Norfolk Southern Railway Company (NS) and CSX Transportation rail lines are responsible for the majority of rail traffic in and around Lima. Fewer trains pass through the county on the RJ Corman Railroad and the River Terminal Railway Co. lines.

“Ten or 15 years ago CSX and NS were sending 43 trains a day through Lima on their north-south tracks,” said Elstro. “I know that has increased some since the recession ended.”

He said an increase in bulk crude oil taken from the oil fields of western Canada and headed for the East Coast has resulted in a noticeable increase in train traffic and the length of trains passing through the city. The I&O line has a rail yard on its east-west line that slows train traffic and leads to crossing blockages on Eastown Road, Cable Road and other crossings in that area, said Elstro.

Julie Finnegan, public information officer with the Ohio Rail Development Commission, said an average of 80 trains pass through Lima on a daily basis — based on 2017 statistics.

She said the CSX line typically averages 22 trains daily on the south side of Lima and 33 on the north side of the city, divided almost equally between daytime and night runs. The CF&E averages nine trains a day on the west side of Lima and 10 on the east side, while the I&O averages eight trains per day passing through the city.

While encouraged about a thriving local economy, Elstro admits that an increase in train traffic in the city is problematic from a traffic flow standpoint.

“The good news is that state and federal officials are recognizing the problem and are making funds available for projects” like the Elm Street underpass to alleviate potential bottlenecks, he said.

Automobiles are stopped as a locomotive cross North Sugar Street in Lima. are stopped as a locomotive cross North Sugar Street in Lima. Craig J. Orosz | The Lima News
Blocked rail crossings signal good economy?

By J Swygart

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