In Savannah: 24 Hours, 192 Horn Blasts
As rail shipments rise, public backlash forces costly steps to deal with noise, traffic jams, by Laura Stevens
Every day, as up to eight freight trains pass back and forth on the outskirts of historical downtown Savannah, Ga., they blow their horns at every single one of the 24 rail crossings along the three-mile stretch.
That is making the Genesee & Wyoming Inc. railroad anything but popular along tracks that, until four years ago, were essentially dormant.
Noble L. Boykin Jr., whose law firm is on East 38th Street, said he and other attorneys have to take “train breaks” during depositions. He has to step into a closet for phone calls. He also lives near the tracks, so he can’t escape them—even at 5 a.m. “Everybody hates it,” he said.
Railroads are facing a growing backlash—not just against dangerous oil trains, but against the noise, delays and traffic jams caused by rail’s rapid expansion and recent success. Rail shipments have increased by more than 6% in the past three years, but a bigger problem is that trains are getting longer, slower and—in many places—more frequent. At least one railroad now averages trains more than a mile long. And trains are federally mandated to honk at most street-level crossings for safety reasons.
Community resistance has historically been just a nuisance to railroads. The rails own their own right of way and operate under federal authority that typically supersedes local ordinances.
Lately, though, public pushback has gotten both serious and costly. It is forcing expensive improvements, interfering with expansion plans and curbing growth. In March, BNSF Railway Co. voluntarily slowed oil trains to 35 mph from 40 mph or higher near populated areas due to community safety concerns, effectively cutting capacity. Canadian National Railway Co. might be on the hook to pay $47 million for an underpass in Barrington, Ill.
CSX Corp. won a major legal victory in April allowing it, after six years, to finally start construction to expand its 110-year-old Virginia Avenue tunnel in Washington, D.C. That is critical to completing its $850 million “National Gateway” project so that it could double-stack containers from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest.
CSX adjusted its plans (and paid a little more—it won’t say how much) to mitigate noise and vibrations, speed construction, and keep the tunnel enclosed, said Louis Renjel, CSX vice president of strategic infrastructure initiatives. “You have a lot of people and businesses in the area, so you have a lot of concerns to work through,” Mr. Renjel said.
In the past, if communities didn’t like what railroads did, railroads did it anyway. Between October and December, Norfolk Southern Corp. received more than 180 traffic citations from the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department for interfering with traffic in Dunlap, Ind. Trains blocked major intersections often daily, sometimes up to five hours, according to Capt. James Bradberry of the department. The tickets carried fines of up to $500 each.
So far this year, though, it’s gotten only a dozen tickets, said Mr. Bradberry. He added the railroad “is responding to our presence and working to mend it.” A Norfolk Southern spokesman said the railroad has invested in the area, including hiring 100 more crew members, to reduce the delays. It doesn’t like blocking roads either, he said, because it means freight isn’t moving.
The friction has grown as freight patterns have shifted. Oil trains that barely existed six years ago, are now a critical part of the energy boom. Container shipments grew 5% in 2014 to record levels as consumer goods shifted to rail.
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