SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A spokesperson for the City of Suffolk said it seems as if the number of times a train blocks a road crossing for an extended period has decreased since the city changed its policy of reporting such instances.
A 10 On Your Side Investigation last April uncovered that while several Hampton Roads cities field complaints of trains standing across grade crossings for more than an hour at times, none had been properly reporting the occurrences to agencies that could do something about it: the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC.)
Following the report, Suffolk directed its police department to begin reporting the extended delays using the law enforcement option on the FRA’s Blocked Crossing Incident Reporter as well as calling the SCC.
At least anecdotally, Tim Kelley, the city’s director of communications, said the change has paid off.
“The general sense seems to be that the situation where trains are stuck a long period of time like that has gone down,” Kelley said in an interview this week.
Dealing with trains has long been a part of living in Tidewater. Until recently, Norfolk was headquarters to one of the country’s four major rail lines.
However with changes in how railroads operate, trains have become longer than ever before. In recent years Suffolk called delays caused by the Commonwealth Railway line “crippling.”
Complaints have come into the city about freight trains blocking multiple crossings, including several adjacent to Wilroy Road, two crossings at Nansemond Parkway and Shoulders Hill Road.
It’s illegal for trains in Virginia to block an intersection at a dead stop for more than five minutes for non-emergency reasons. Yet, trains often do stop for periods of time to perform switching operations and also change crews.
Efforts to enforce the law haven’t proved successful. In 2017, the SCC imposed a $18,600 fine on CSX Transportation, however CSX appealed, saying state law is overruled by the authority of the FRA.
However, last year the FRA said they would dispatch an inspector to a crossing that has received three complaints of blockage on three separate calendar days within a 30-day window.
It’s one of the reasons Suffolk began requiring law enforcement to make the reports.
“Since May of last year we have approximately 35 instances [of blocked crossings] where Suffolk Police dispatch has notified one or both of those organizations of such a situation,” Kelley said. A number rivaling the total number of reports in the region the previous year.
While there is no sure way of knowing if there is a correlation between the increasing number of reports, and fewer stopped trains Suffolk is witnessing, the FRA confirms action is being taken.
“Both FRA and the Virginia State Corporation Commission continue to receive complaints about blocked crossings in Suffolk and Portsmouth,” said Warren Flatau, an FRA spokesperson. “As a result, FRA and VA SCC have reached out to railroad officials encouraging them to identify and take steps as possible to minimize such occurrences.”
Flatau mentioned that if operational changes don’t change anything, localities now have new options under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“FRA is establishing a Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant Program. It will provide localities an opportunity to secure funding for long-term improvements including grade separations,” Flatau said.
Suffolk is currently working to construct an overpass over the Commonwealth Railway rail line to replace the current Nansemond Parkway and Wilroy Road grade crossing.
Kelley said he would encourage all local governments to consider working with the FRA and SCC to address the crossing delays.
Thus far, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Norfolk have not directed their law enforcement to report blocked crossings to the FRA or SCC.
REPORT A BLOCKED CROSSING
Report the blockage on the FRA’s Blocked Crossing Incident Reporter.
Fill out a complaint on the SCC website https://scc.virginia.gov/pages/Railroad-Regulation, or by calling 804-371-9980.