Stopped trains blocking Charlotte roads, leading to complaints

The duration of these incidents ranges from 16 minutes to more than 24 hours.
Recently the safety of the tracks has been called into question.
Published: Jun. 22, 2023 at 7:27 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 22, 2023 at 7:33 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Recent reporting by ProPublica and Investigate TV led WBTV to investigate blocked railroad crossings in Charlotte.

Eyes across the country have turned to railroad improvements following the announcement of $2.9 billion worth of funding for major infrastructure projects in March 2022.

In a statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the funding will “make our transportation system safer.

Recently the safety of the tracks has been called into question.

Since 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has compiled data from complaints made by people across the U.S. who witness trains stopped at railroad crossings.

Since that time, over 70,000 complaints have flooded the incident reports.

Mecklenburg County has a total of 22 complaints filed over the past year. Charlotte’s Old Dowd Road and Donald Ross Road crossings have combined for 11 of those complaints.

The duration of these incidents ranges from 16 minutes to more than 24 hours.

Donald Ross Road is a cut-through between Wilkinson Boulevard and West Boulevard that sees high levels of traffic.

Peter Karabatsos, who works for Threadline Products Inc. on Donald Ross Road, says the crossing is backed up frequently, forcing cars to turn around.

“Typically, if it does happen, it’s weeks at a time. So last month there was three weeks where every morning the train was just sitting there,” he said.

It’s even starting to impact Threadline’s business.

“Deliveries are being held back an hour, sometimes an hour and a half just because of that train,” Karabatsos said, “It’s impacting our business tremendously.”

Donald Ross Road is unique from other roads around it. Remount Road and Old Steele Creek Road have bridges that allow traffic to avoid the railroad crossing underneath.

With the crossing at Donald Ross being a reoccurring nuisance, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has proposed to extend Clanton Road from Donald Ross Road to Wilkinson Blvd. The project would also include a bridge over the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks effectively closing the crossing.

This project needs $16.7 million to begin construction, which is projected to be complete in 2025.

Norfolk Southern accounts for 2,132 reports in 2023, which is the second-highest number of railroad company complaints in the country.

The exact reason for trains stopping on roads has yet to be determined. Industry experts told Investigate TV trains generally stop because crews have worked the maximum hours or because of rail switching practices impacting when they can move.

Contrarily, a station in Greenville recently reached out to Norfolk Southern to comment on the problem in which they responded, “Implementing [a new operating plan]... has temporarily impacted our service, resulting in some trains being stopped for extended periods.”

Federal laws have made regulating blocked crossings nearly impossible.

For decades, states had authority over the railroads with 37 states adopting anti-blocking laws. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in State of Ohio v. CSX Transportation Inc. has made those anti-blocking laws powerless.

“We can push, we can cajole, we can shine a spotlight, but we actually aren’t able as a department to command a railroad to change that situation,” Buttigieg said to Investigate TV.

In North Carolina politics, the Railroad Safety Omnibus Act was filed by the N.C. House of Representatives on April 17, 2023, and was referred to the committee on transportation on April 18. The bill has yet to make a second reading.

If passed, the law would prevent any railroad from permitting any train from stopping on a public highway for longer than 10 minutes. If the railroad didn’t follow the law, fines upwards of $25,000 would be given.

Whether these fines would prevent railroad companies from stopping on roads is subjective. ProPublica reports that train profits are on the rise.

Buttigieg believes the best way to fight back against blocked railroad crossings is to continue to put pressure on railroad companies.

“Any moment that the public attention starts to fade the railroads are in a position to once again assert themselves in Washington and to ignore some of the phone calls they’re getting in the communities,” he said.

Those wanting to report a blocked railroad crossing can visit the FRA’s website.