Freight trains frequently stop and block the roads of York, Ala., sometimes cutting off two neighborhoods for hours. Emergency services and health workers cannot enter, and those trapped inside cannot get out.
“People’s livelihoods are in jeopardy because they can’t get to work on time,” said Amanda Brassfield, who has lived in one of the neighborhoods, Grant City, for 32 years and raised two daughters there. “It’s not fair.”
Residents have voiced those complaints for years to Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks, and to regulators and members of Congress. But the problem only got worse.
Freight trains often block roads nationwide, a phenomenon that local officials say has steadily worsened in the last decade as railroads run longer trains and leave them parked on tracks at crossings. The blockages can turn school dropouts into nightmares, starve local businesses of customers and prevent emergency services of reaching those in need.
The problem has persisted despite numerous federal, state and local proposals and laws because the commodity iron industry has enormous political and legal power.
Courts have thrown out several state laws seeking to punish railroad companies for blocking traffic, ruling that only the federal government can regulate railroad crossings. No federal laws or regulations punish railroads for blocking crossings, and congressional proposals to address the issue have not overcome opposition from the railroad industry.
A bipartite bill that was introduced in Congress in March, after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, required regulators to issue rules for trains carrying hazardous materials that would “reduce or eliminate blocked crossings.”
But that provision was stripped before the Senate commerce committee advanced the bill in May. The legislation, which awaits a vote by the full Senate, would now only require a National Academy of Sciences study of blocked crossings.
Railroad lobbyists argued that the provision was unrelated to the issues raised by the Ohio accident and pressured sympathetic senators to remove it, according to four people familiar with the negotiations on the bill.
Speaking on the day of the committee vote, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a former rail lobbyist, criticized the blocked crossing. “This bill should have been about security reforms related to the derailment in East Palestine, but now it has been expanded to a stalking horse for tough regulatory mandates and union donations,” he said.
Senators who supported the provision agreed to take it up to gain more Republican support and boost the bill’s chances, the four people said.
The freight iron industry is dominated by four American companies – Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX and BNSF – and two Canadian ones, Canadian Pacific Kansas City and Canadian National. American railroads and the Association of American Railroads, a trade group, have spent about $454 million on federal lobbying over the past two decades, according to a New York Times analysis of federal lobbying. That’s about $30 million more than the four largest airlines and their business group.
Mr. Thune has received about $341,000 in campaign contributions since 2010 from railroad employees and political action committees, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics. He served as the railroad director for South Dakota from 1991 to 1993 and worked as a lobbyist for several companies including the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad for two years after a failed Senate bid in 2002, according to disclosure forms.
The senator declined to comment.
The Senate’s reluctance to confront the railroad industry did not surprise Daniel Lipinski, a former House Democrat from Illinois.
In 2020, he presented invoice this would have placed limits on how long railroad companies could block crossings, and would have required penalties for trains that exceeded those limits. The idea turned it into a House infrastructure bill. But the Senate removed the provision after the Association of American Railroads said it would “cause unintended consequences, including network congestion and reductions in service.”
“The state or local governments can’t do anything,” said Mr. Lipinski, now a consultant and fellow at the University of Dallas and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “The federal government is doing nothing about the crossings, and that’s how the railroads would like to keep it.”
The infrastructure law, which passed in 2021, did provide grants for “level crossing elimination” projects, mainly to lay roads under or over tracks. Local officials said those grants would repair only a small number of crossings that freight trains often blocked.
There is no thorough accounting of how often trains block the country’s more than 200,000 railroad crossings. People can make reports to a website maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 30,803 reports last year, up from 21,648 in 2021.
Texas, Ohio and Illinois had the most incidents. Some blockages may be reported more than once, but local officials claim the database greatly undercounts blockages. York residents say they don’t usually report blocked crossings.
In response to questions, the Association of American Railroads attributed blocked crossings to local governments, which it said routed roads across railroad tracks rather than over or under them, an approach that other industrialized countries have taken.
John Gray, senior vice president at the association, said in a statement that railroads have taken steps to reduce the impact of blocked crossings. “The real solution is not a question of technology or operational practices of the railway or public agencies,” Mr Gray said. “It’s public infrastructure investment similar to what’s been going on in the rest of the developed world for over a century and a half.”
Local officials and some railroad employees said that explanation is self-serving. They link the increase in blocked crossings to the pursuit of greater profits – Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern earned $96 billion in profits in the last five years, 13 percent more than in the previous five years. The profit margins of the large railroads significantly exceed those of companies in most other industries.
Seeking greater efficiency, railroads ran longer trains. As a result, when those trains are moved, assembled and changed at rail yards, they often spill into nearby neighborhoods, blocking roadways, local officials and workers said.
Shippers have a better sense of the space that shorter trains take up, said Randy Fannon Jr., national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union, which also oversees its safety task force. Longer trains are more difficult to maneuver on single track railways. Such railroads have sections of track, or sidings, where trains can pull aside to allow other trains to pass, but those sections are not large enough for very long trains, Mr. Fannon said.
“If you have two 5,000-foot trains or one 10,000-foot train, you cut your locomotive use in half and your train in half,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about – profit.”
In York, trains stop and block roads when they use a siding that runs through the city. Residents say the company could move the siding into the surrounding countryside. The railway association listed new sidings as a way to deal with blocked crossings in their own materials.
“They have no incentive” to make that change, said Willie Lake, the mayor of York and a former federal bank regulator.
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said in a statement that the company was working with York to reduce the disruptions. When asked if Norfolk Southern might move the siding, he declined to comment, other than to say the company already uses sidings outside the city and has created a position to work on issues like blocked crossings.
“The only way to eliminate stopping at a railroad crossing is to eliminate the crossing itself,” Mr. Spielmaker said. He noted that Norfolk Southern wrote a letter in February to the Transportation Department in support of York’s federal grant application to build an overpass and said it would work with York on future grants.
In June, York learned that its applications for two federal grants had been rejected. “It’s a punch in the gut,” Mr Lake said.
Officials at the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, one of the department’s agencies, declined to say whether they could issue rules penalizing railroads for blocking crossings. A spokesman for the railroad administration, Dan Griffin, said the railroads should fix the problem without being required.
“The duration and prevalence of blocked railroad crossings is the result of railroad company operating practices,” he said in a statement.
The blockades are non-stop in York – and sometimes extreme.
On a sweltering election day in June 2022, a train blockade lasted more than 10 hours, forcing many people, some elderly and sick, to take shelter in an arts center.
Carolyn Turner, 51, said stalled trains have caught her in her neighborhood several times, making her late for dialysis appointments 30 miles away and causing great stress. “I like to go there and come back and help with my grandkids,” she said.
The city’s population is largely Black, and some residents said that might explain why its railroad crossings were often blocked.
“If you really want to see them squirm, tell them, ‘How many white people’s communities do you do that in?'” Jessie V. Brown, an Army veteran, said of Norfolk Southern executives. The company declined to respond to Ms Brown’s statement.
Some officials are pinning their hopes on the Supreme Court.
At least 37 states have laws regulating blocked crossings, some over a century old, and courts have invalidated several of them. Ohio, Indiana, Alabama and other states asked the Supreme Court to affirm that they can put limits on blocked crossings. The court could decide this fall whether it will hear the case.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.