CHESTER, S.C. — Leaders in Chester County say trains regularly blocking roads are causing public safety concerns. Now, they're looking for ways to raise awareness, saying it’s not just an inconvenience.
Their reason: they say these trains sometimes block first responders rushing to an emergency.
"We have situations where deputies from my office are responding to calls, emergency calls, and they can’t get through these intersections and they’re having to go sometimes five or seven miles out of the way to get to these calls," said Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey. "But that’s not just deputies from our office. That’s ambulances, that’s fire trucks."
Donnie Clack, who owns Clack's Convenience Corner, said he has been watching these trains every day for 39 years. In the last four months, he believes something has changed, with trains stopping more often and staying stopped longer.
“As much as five hours, even 10 hours one night," he said. "There’s just no respect for this crossing whatsoever, and it’s not just this crossing. It’s the one below me and the one above me also."
The Chester County Sheriff’s Office decided to do its own research by recording calls it received about blocked roadways.
Between July and August, the sheriff's office said there were 46 calls that saw trains blocking roadways in Chester, and 34 trains staying stopped for more than an hour.
Three train companies service Chester County: the Lancaster and Chester Railroad, CSX, and Norfolk Southern. Sheriff Dorsey said he just hopes everyone involved can work together to find viable solutions, noting that train companies are a crucial part of the local economy.
“Those train companies and their predecessors have been a part of the fabric of our community. Chester is Chester because of the trains," he said.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there is no federal law regulating blocked crossings. In South Carolina, the law says if you block a road for more than five minutes after being warned, you may pay a fine of up to $20.
Officials in Chester County have expressed grave concerns over freight trains that routinely park for extended periods of time across critical intersections and roadways. They are justifiably worried about the obstacles these trains pose for Chester County’s law enforcement, fire, and EMS units during emergencies.
Railroads obviously play a vital role in Chester’s economy, but Congressman Norman believes there must be a more responsible balance between train operations and public safety. Over the coming weeks, he’ll be working to bring railroad companies to the table to discuss ways to reduce this problem with Chester County officials.
Norfolk Southern and CSX also sent statements, saying they are aware of the blocked crossing concerns. The Chester and Lancaster Railway, owned by Gulf and Ohio Railways, did not send a statement.
Norfolk Southern's full statement from a spokesperson follows:
We’re on the same page – these types of concerns require collaboration from everyone involved, especially when it comes to infrastructure and change over time.
I will note that specific to blocked crossings, trains have to stop for many valid reasons – maintenance issues, crew hour limits (similar to airline pilots, this is regulated by the federal government), or congestion ahead, among others.
Regardless, Norfolk Southern never wants to inconvenience any member of a community with a blocked crossing. We work hard to keep trains moving and to minimize these impacts whenever they happen. Relationships with local communities and the officials representing them are important to us, and we look forward to continuing to build the ones we have here in Chester.
A CSX spokesperson offered this statement:
CSX is aware of concerns about blocked crossings in Chester County. We are looking into the matter and will and continue to maintain an open line of communication with local officials. We strive to be a good neighbor and limit the impact of our operations on local communities. We work hard to serve our customers as safely and efficiently as possible and our operations team is committed to reducing occurrences that impact drivers or normal traffic flow.