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New Tactics To Stop Trains From Blocking Roads

NOEL KING, HOST:

So we've all been there. You're in your car. You're stopped at train tracks, waiting while a train passes through. It's inconvenient, but it's usually not a big deal. But that is not the case for residents in some small towns across the Midwest, where these waits can last for hours. Charlotte Tuggle of member station WBAA reports.

CHARLOTTE TUGGLE, BYLINE: Frankfort, Ind., is a small town nestled between miles of cornfields located about a 2 hours drive south of Chicago. The city is bisected by train tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWING)

TUGGLE: Sometimes trains block the road for hours - yes, hours at a time. That drives Mayor Chris McBarnes crazy.

CHRIS MCBARNES: Right now, we have a string to battle a giant.

TUGGLE: There are more trains, and they're significantly longer than they used to be, but stopped trains have become such an issue here that McBarnes urges residents to call the police when a train is blocking the road. McBarnes says under current laws, there's little city officials can do.

MCBARNES: We're calling upon our state legislators to put a law - a stiffer law - into place with teeth behind it that gives local communities the ability to go to battle with these people if we need to.

TUGGLE: There's already a case before the Indiana state Supreme Court concerning blocked crossings. In Kentucky, a similar case is in a federal court. Across the Midwest, it's a problem for small towns that don't have the leverage or money to fight the rail companies. Many of those trains are owned by Norfolk Southern, and while the company would not talk on tape, in a statement, it says long delays are highly unusual and asks residents to keep in mind that those trains provide jobs and tax revenue.

Residents in affected towns work to find alternate routes around stopped trains. Charles Hart works in nearby Crawfordsville, Ind., and was on his way to the gas station after work on a recent evening when a train blocked an intersection along his route. This time, it took half an hour to get moving again. He says he used to be delayed three or four times a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWING)

CHARLES HART: This one doesn't bother me as much because this is a side street, but a lot of times, they'd block down that - you know, they'd block three highways, basically, when they stop downtown.

TUGGLE: Those stoppages cause traffic to become so congested that Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton took an unusual step and set up a camera at the intersection that livestreams to his office.

TODD BARTON: So I actually have the ability to see the entire crossing area. I can zoom in and out to see kind of what's going on.

TUGGLE: That livestream is shared with the city's emergency dispatch after a house burned down where fire and rescue couldn't reach it fast enough because they had to reroute around a blocked crossing. Barton says having video evidence has been helpful in conversations with the rail companies.

BARTON: We would say, hey, you know, you had this blocked for four hours. And they would say, oh, no, no, we didn't. OK, I'm sending you the video.

TUGGLE: The trains in this town are owned by CSX, and company officials in a statement admit operational challenges in Crawfordsville and say they've made changes to reduce the number of incidents. Mayor Barton says the blockages remain a big deal in his community.

BARTON: Even had a situation one time in which a guy grabbed me in a restaurant, just irate - you know, you need to fix this, and it's - this is ridiculous.

TUGGLE: Todd Barton says the city has made progress with CSX. But until the state Legislature steps up or the federal government steps in, he's left to handle the frustration long-blocked train crossings cause residents every day. For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Tuggle in West Lafayette, Ind.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "ACOUSTIC NINJA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.