Slow freights have officials railing against railroad
By Mike Nolan email@example.com January 17, 2014 8:16PM
Evergreen Park officials are frustrated over stopped trains and blocked crossings along CSX routes that run through the village, including this crossing at 94th Street and Kedzie Avenue. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media.
Updated: February 20, 2014 6:12AM
Most drivers have experienced the dashboard-pounding frustration of being stuck in a line of cars while a slow-moving freight train inches its way through a rail crossing.
In Evergreen Park, slow and sometimes stopped trains increasingly are snarling traffic, or gates remain down long after a train has cleared a crossing, according to Mayor Jim Sexton.
The problem has gotten so bad that the village — on an electronic message board by village hall — has posted phone numbers drivers can call to complain. The numbers direct callers to CSX, the railroad that operates the line.
Sexton said the village has been getting hundreds of calls, with “people screaming and yelling at us” to do something. Village officials have been told by CSX, which last summer bought the troubled line, that it’s working to fix the problems.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m frustrated.”
Also affected are crossings in some Chicago communities, including Beverly and Mount Greenwood.
Recently, in Evergreen Park, crossings were blocked when two freights had simultaneous mechanical issues, Sexton said. Earlier this month, gates remained down for more than an hour at crossings along major streets, including 95th Street and Kedzie Avenue, after a train had cleared them, according to village police. Since last summer, they’ve documented dozens of incidents of stopped trains and malfunctioning gates, according to Frank Clarin, the department’s records supervisor.
Some stopped trains, due to their length, can affect multiple crossings at the same time, Sexton and police said.
For instance, in the recent downed gates episode, crossings from 94th and Kedzie, next to village hall, to 95th and Rockwell Avenue were affected, and the police department was “inundated” with calls, Clarin said.
“People are mad as hell, and we sympathize with them, but our hands are tied,” he said.
Municipalities had in the past been able to ticket stopped trains, but the Illinois Supreme Court in 2008 took away that enforcement tool.
Even if there isn’t a train and gates are stuck, it’s no simple matter of just going around them. A few years ago, when trains were barred from sounding their horns as they passed through the village, medians were installed at crossings to discourage cars from bypassing closed gates.
‘Period of transition’
Ongoing upgrades are affecting train movements on those tracks in Evergreen Park and Chicago, a 22-mile line formerly operated by the Grand Trunk Western and more recently Canadian National, between northwest Indiana and Chicago, according to Carla Groleau, a CSX spokeswoman.
“We are in a period of transition with that line,” she said. “These improvements will enhance our system.”
Some of that work, including replacing ties and train signals, requires trains to slow down along that stretch, she said, acknowledging the inconvenience for drivers.
“We are committed to resolving these issues,” Groleau said. “We understand the residents wanting us to get (trains) through there as quickly as possible.”
Like Sexton, 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea said he hears from residents about slow-moving or stopped freights and is angered that CSX hasn’t moved more quickly in addressing problems.
“The crossings are old and in poor condition, which affects train speed,” he said.
O’Shea said CN did little to improve the decrepit line while it operated it.
“CSX inherited a mess,” he said.
More than an inconvenience
At a minimum, Sexton said he’s worried that businesses might suffer as potential customers avoid the village’s retail districts for fear they’ll be stuck by a stopped train or stuck gates.
However, he notes there are two hospitals in the area — Little Company of Mary, in his village, and Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
“What I’m really worried about is, God forbid, somebody might not get to the hospital in time,” the mayor said.
So far, while fire trucks and ambulances have had to reroute around trains, “we’ve been very, very fortunate that nothing serious has happened,” said Ronald Kleinhaus, Evergreen Park’s fire chief.
If there isn’t a train, emergency vehicles can maneuver around lowered gates, he said. A camera mounted on village hall points to the crossing at 94th and Kedzie, letting dispatchers know if a train is blocking it and perhaps other crossings.
While Evergreen Park’s fire department has mutual aid agreements with neighboring suburbs — meaning if village equipment is delayed, another department is responding — Kleinhaus said the problem is “very aggravating and frustrating.”
“Unfortunately, the village is at the mercy of the railroad,” he said.