SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — When Christina Chenoweth hears the blast of a train’s horns from her home, she knows it’s time to make a split-second decision.
Does she need to try to get anywhere soon? If so, she must quickly try to beat the train to the crossing — as she might be trapped in her neighborhood for more than an hour.
“We’ve had neighbors lose jobs over this train. My own sister missed my high school graduation because of this train,” Chenoweth said. “Just fed up with it.”
Chenoweth, 26, lives in the Wonderland Forest area of Suffolk, a small community that sits on the northern end of the Great Dismal Swamp, just south of the Village of Driver. Sportsman Boulevard connects the community to the outside world when it meets Nansemond Parkway.
However, between Nansemond Parkway and neighbors’ homes, crosses the Commonwealth Railway. These days, Chenoweth says these days the train seems to be coming more than it ever has before. Often, it will come to a complete stop on the track for an extended period of time.
“Any time of the day, they’re coming, any time of the night … block it for up to an hour, hour and a half sometimes,” Chenoweth said.
The shortline railway’s top customer is the sprawling Virginia International Gateway port in Portsmouth. Containers are offloaded from ships overseas at the terminal in Portsmouth and taken by rail through Suffolk to meet up with CSX and Norfolk Southern lines.
As the business at the port has increased, so has the length of the trains, according to L.J. Hansen, Public Works director for the City of Suffolk. 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.
The reason trains stop is often to perform switching at the railroad marshalling yard just south of the Sportsman Boulevard grade crossing. A marshalling yard is where train cars are often disconnected and re-arranged on multiple tracks.
“‘That marshaling yard can be a busy place,” Hansen said. “That’s just really having an impact on the commute for the people that they’re trying to get through that area.”
It’s illegal for trains in Virginia to block an intersection at a dead stop for more than five minutes.
The problem is, Hansen said, the law is “really difficult law to enforce.”
If the train moves even an inch at four minutes and 59 seconds, the whole clock resets.
Hansen, along with the former city manager, have both written strongly worded emails to the line’s owner asking them to do something to eliminate what they’re calling “crippling” delays.
“People understand that trains cross streets and everyone has to wait. That is a fundamental fact of
life that nobody argues. What I can’t understand is how you can continue to justify trains parked at
railroad crossings for long stretches of time, every day. This is getting worse by the day,” wrote Patrick Roberts, the city manager at the time, in a Sept. 2 email to railroad leadership. “It is a
matter of time before I can’t get a fire engine or ambulance to the location of a life-threatening
emergency because you have blocked a road crossing.”
On the night of Wednesday, Nov. 18, 10 On Your Side investigators witnessed a train across Nansemond Parkway near Suffolk Meadows Boulevard for a total of an hour and 20 minutes. The train wasn’t standing still the entire time, but pulled forward and then reversed multiple times as it switched cars roughly two miles away.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Connecticut-based owner of the railroad said that trains stretching to three miles long also causing issues as their marshalling yard is only mile and a half.
“The Commonwealth has already coordinated with the larger connecting railroads to avoid handling trains during rush-hour periods, focusing the work as much as possible in the later evening hours,” said Michael Williams, vice president of corporate communications for Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, Inc. “Commonwealth Railway employees and their families live in the same communities that the railroad serves and do everything in their power to minimize the time that trains occupy grade crossings.”
He said the railroad is fully cooperating with the city’s plan to construct an overpass over the rail line to replace the current Nansemond Parkway and Wilroy Road grade crossing.
“Really the best solution to this issue,” Williams said.
However, the railroad will pay no part of the $27-million bill for the flyover to make it happen. Instead, the project will be completed with a mix of federal, state and local dollars.
That particular intersection is a high priority, as train delays can snarl traffic on the road for miles.
“All movements, including right turns onto Wilroy Road are blocked when a single-vehicle wishing to proceed southbound on Nansemond Parkway arrives at the intersection during a train crossing,” a city brochure about the project said. “This has prompted unsafe driver decisions to risk
driving into opposing traffic to go around queued vehicles.”
Hansen said construction could begin as soon as next year, with the bridge open to traffic in 2024.
This can’t come soon enough, as currently a Suffolk police officer is called away to monitor traffic at the location every time a train crosses.
“That Wilroy Road-Nansemond Parkway corridor is really important for us to connect between downtown and north Suffolk,” Hansen said.
However, that still provides no solution for all the other crossings, like the one affecting Chenoweth in the Wonderland Forest area.
“We’ll find things that make this better. They won’t be all multi-million dollar flyovers,” Hansen said.
It leaves her still waiting for a solution — waiting, like she does for trains.
“I feel like it’s going to take a medical emergency back here for something to actually be done,” Chenoweth said.