Federal, state legislators promise action to end railroad crossing blockages

Officials discuss the recent Norfolk Southern train situation in the town of Lynn with U.S. Congressman Robert Aderholt. From left, Winston County Commissioners David Cummings and Rutger Hyche, Aderholt and Kelli Wolfe, district field representative for U.S. Senator Katie Britt.

LYNN    -  State and federal officials are seeking  action and accountability from Norfolk Southern Railroad, which had a train stopped on the tracks in Lynn at least 12 hours Tuesday, Jan. 23, blocking a major crossing and drastically affecting access to a landfill operation and two other industries.
The train, with a length of between a quarter and half a mile, was stopped from the early morning hours until around 7 p.m., blocking access to the crossing on County Road 356, a major thoroughfare for large trucks needing to transport goods and supplies to various markets, according to town officials.  According to Norfolk Southern officials, the train stoppage was due to a mechanical issue.
Lynn Police Chief Kirkpatrick noted a meeting was being sought with U.S. Congressman Robert Aderholt and members of Winston County’s state legislative delegation, including Representatives Tim Wadsworth and Tracy Estes and Senator Garlan Gudger, as well as Norfolk Southern officials, in hopes of resolving this issue.
Although Norfolk Southern had the halted train removed by 7 p.m., town officials are adamant something needs to be done to prevent future events, Kirkpatrick stressed.
“We’re going to have a sit-down about this to see if we can get something resolved,” said Kirkpatrick. “It’s repetitive.  It happened several times last year, and it is starting again this year.”
Kirkpatrick explained the stalled train has caused problems at l three different crossings in the town over the past year at least, with each incident lasting up to 12 hours before the train was moved.
According to Norfolk Southern’s own operating guidelines, unattended trains cannot block crossings.  According to Norfolk Southern Operating Rules dated April 15, 2023, obtained by the Alabamian, trains, engines or cars when left unattended must clear crossings and crossing signal circuits.
“When practicable, the equipment must be at least 300 feet from a public or private crossing,”  the rules state.  “Public crossings must not be obstructed unnecessarily.”

“Something has got to be done,” Kirkpatrick stressed. “This is a small town, but we matter. We have several industries in this town that rely on these crossings. They can’t go out of their way. That is detrimental to the business.
State Representative Danny Garrett (R) introduced House Bill 122 in early 2022, that would have placed fines on rail companies each time a stalled train was left on the tracks two or more hours, but the bill never made it out of the state senate.The bill was designed to prohibit blockage of railroad highway grade crossings under certain conditions, and to provide a civil penalty for a violation, according to a copy of the bill.
“Except for trains stopped due to mechanical failure, derailment or other unforeseeable events outside the control of the rail carrier...any train that has come to a complete stop and is blocking a railroad highway grade crossing for two or more continuous hours shall be cut, separated, or moved to clear the crossing upon the approach of any authorized emergency vehicle,” wording in the bill read.
Also a train blocking such a crossing for over two hours was termed in the bill as a public nuisance.
“The rail carrier...operating the train shall pay a civil penalty of $5,000 for each hour the train blocks the railroad highway grade crossing, provided the civil penalty does not exceed $50,000,” according to the bill.
After this most recent incident in Lynn, State Representative Tracy Estes noted he is seeking to have such a bill reintroduced in the legislature.
“I’m aware of the bill we did get through the House in 2022,” Estes stated. “We passed it at the House, but that was as far as it got.”
Estes noted he would be seeking answers to legal questions, as to what authority needs to be taken in dealing with this situation.
“I’ve had a conversation with Congressman (Robert) Aderholt about this issue,” Estes said. “He understands the federal government will have more influence here than the state government, simply because they have more power in situations such as these.
“Even with that said, I know our Winston County delegation will work together to do what we can at the state level to see if we can remedy this circumstance, to be an aid and assistance to our local industries and to the residents who travel these roads that are impacted,” Estes emphasized.
State Representative Tim Wadsworth noted he has contacted the Public Service Commission and Federal Regulatory Commission, and got with the Town of Lynn to draft letters for business owners to send to those agencies about the problem.
“For something (to sit on the tracks) 12 hours is a violation of the law,” Wadsworth stated.
“I can understand why all of the businesses in the Town of Lynn and citizens are upset,” Wadsworth pointed out. “Something has to be done. You are going to have the regulatory (commission) do the investigation, so this will not happen in the future.
“Hopefully, (Norfolk Southern) will be sanctioned for their actions,” Wadsworth pointed out.
Aderholt stressed his office has been in frequent contact with Norfolk Southern officials and that any such issues with rail companies should be addressed at the federal level.
“You get their attention when you have legislation that they hear is moving,” Aderholt said.
“If you just threaten them, the big train companies like the Norfolk Southerns of the world, they will sometimes brush you off,” Aderholt added. “But if they understand there is going to be some federal legislation that impacts them, then you can get their attention.
“I think something probably needs to be done on the federal level,” Aderholt pointed out.
“That is something we can’t have in Winston County or any part of the 4th (Congressional) district  as far I’m concerned, anywhere in the state,” Aderholt emphasized.
“Obviously, there are a lot of federal laws that govern the railroads that you just can’t run over them,” Aderholt began. “But at the same time, this is clearly something that is impeding economic development and commerce.”
Aderholt has also dealt with stopped trains blocking key intersections in Sheffield, literally dividing that city into two sections, Aderholt explained.
“No matter where it is, it’s a real issue,” Aderholt pointed out.
The key, Aderholt continued, is to work with Norfolk Southern and any affected railway companies to make sure they understand that when they are blocking crossings, they are blocking commerce.
“They are blocking economic development, especially for an area like Lynn where you shut everything down,” Aderholt stressed.
Aderholt admitted he didn’t know of an immediate solution, but would seek an answer.
“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Giving train companies the benefit of the doubt, Aderholt did say sometimes emergencies cause trains to be parked on tracks for extended periods.
“But they have to be very mindful of the local communities and the local areas.  I want to make sure they are not just taking advantage,” Aderholt said.
“When it’s 12 hours,” he added. “That’s when it becomes inexcusable.”

Bill introduced at federal level

Senate Bill S 576, known as the Railway Safety Act of 2023, was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 1, 2023, sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and J.D. Vance (R-OH).
This bill addresses safety requirements for rail carriers and trains transporting hazardous materials. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in March, 2023, but no action has been taken, according to Congress.gov.  Neither of Alabama’s senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
The bill’s language specifically states that the Department of Transportation (DOT) must issue safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials, requiring that rail carriers or shippers (1) provide state emergency response commissioners with advanced notice and information about the hazardous materials; (2) reduce blocked rail crossings; and (3) comply with certain requirements regarding train length and weight specifications, track standards, speed restrictions and response plans.
U.S. House Bill 1674 is the House version of the legislation, sponsored by Christopher R. Deluzio (D-PA) and also introduced in 2023.  Aderholt has not signed on as a co-sponsor of this legislation, although several of his Republican colleagues have, according to congress.gov.  
The House bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials,  of which Aderholt is not a member.
The Alabamian reached out to State Senator Garlan Gudger repeatedly for comment on this story, but did not hear back from him as of press time Monday, Jan. 29.


See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
Subscribe now!