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Railroad Crossing Blockages Throughout the United States more than just an Inconvenience to Affected Communities

(Waterloo, Iowa – May 17, 2018)

The too-often railroad practice of denying access to normal routes of travel has reached an epidemic point for many residents in urban America.  Some communities are taking action through levying fines against the massive and powerful railroad industry as well.  Many victims of the railroad industry’s failure to demonstrate a commitment to public safety are now seeking relief through their state court systems.

In Waterloo, Iowa, the Canadian National’s railroad practices of blocking road crossings and common pedestrian routes have left at least five individuals with crippling injuries, including lost limbs or hands, due to their trains blocking pedestrian routes for extended hours and then moving, without warning. Two of the Waterloo victims recently filed civil suits in Black Hawk County District Court for accidents that occurred in April and September of 2017.  Each of them, Jovida Owens, 37, and Oneida Cosby, 67, lost one or both legs when they attempted to crawl under stopped CN trains that had blocked two Waterloo crossings for lengthy periods of time.  The CN trains showed no signs of moving from their blocking positions of public pathways. Both victims have obtained legal counsel from Manhattan, Kansas-based railroad accident attorneys at Pottroff & Karlin.

Bob Pottroff says “This problem exists in cities throughout the United States, but Waterloo is the poster child,” adding that “We consider this a matter of great public safety concern.”  Waterloo, Iowa, Mayor Quentin Hart has hopes the litigation efforts by the two victims not only helps themselves, but can be a catalyst for larger community change. “Hopefully, there can be some resolution that can come from this to help people,” he told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

As stated, this epidemic is not just isolated to Waterloo, Iowa. In Woodhaven, Michigan, an ambulance carrying patient Avrid Eliason to a local hospital ended up being stuck by a stopped freight train.  Eliason, whose brain had hemorrhaged following an accidental fall at home, died from the lack of care he would have received had the ambulance not been stuck for 20 critical minutes due to the blocked train.

In Atlanta, Georgia, Norfolk Southern freight trains have been known to block the crossing that allows Adair Park residents access to many goods and services for as long as 60 hours. The unacceptable crossing delays led to the death of 61-year-old Larry Seymour when he tried to cross between the cars of a standing freight train this past summer and died of his injuries when the train moved without warning.

Elsewhere in Georgia, the community of Cartersville is “fed up” with CSX railroad trains blocking its crossings for hours at a time. The City’s pursuit will follow enforcement of a city statute that calls for fining the railroad responsible for crossings being blocked in excess of 10 minutes.

According to The Seattle Pilot’s “Getting There” column, Washington State has an administrative rule enforced by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission that says that railroad companies “must not block a grade crossing for more than (10) consecutive minutes, if reasonably possible.” However, this rule is often ignored by railroads, and when it is attempted to be enforced, railroads claim preemption, such as they have done in the Indiana case which has made its way to the Indiana Supreme Court.

In Plymouth, Ohio, where a CSX freight train blocked a crossing for nine hours last October, Plymouth City Manager Paul Sincock attempted to seek answers and relief from the railroad for trains that block crossings for nine-hours, but admitted that “We need solutions from Washington” since “railroads are federally regulated.” Thus, “state and local governments have no recourse to keep crossings cleared.”

In Fort Worth, Texas, for years residents near East Peach Street have been held hostage by parked Union Pacific trains that cut their neighborhood off from the rest of the city. “Somebody is going to get hurt or die because they can’t get medical attention”, said Ashley Gonzales to Dallas-Fort Worth NBC News Reporter Scott Gordon in a TV news feature entitled “Trapped by Trains.” Another resident, Alice Cuellar, shared her dilemma with the NBC reporter, saying that her way to escape the situation posed by crossing blockages that lasted 30 to 45 minutes, and longer, could be termed “downright dangerous.”  She resorts to crawling under the stopped rail cars!  But for resident Tara Parker, the risk of life is multiple. “I’m nine months pregnant and I’ve still got to go under them (the train cars) . It’s the only way to get out,” she lamented.  Some youngsters in this Fort Worth community are forced to endure the risk to pursue their educations. Grade school student Marcus Brown, 8, often finds his daily short walk of a few blocks to school blocked by the seemingly immovable trains. So, according to him, he must go under the trains as well.

How much influence communities have over not letting the powerful railroad industry split towns in half for hours or days on end is just why the Indiana Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments in the case of State of Indiana v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co.  The case involves 23 citations issued against the railroad in Allen County for trains blocking crossings for extended periods of time.  The railroad argued the citations were unenforceable and it did not have to comply with Indiana law because the law was preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act and the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act A Superior Court agreed and ruled in favor of the railroad, citing preemption. However, this decision was reversed upon appeal. “Without state action, railroads would be allowed to block major thoroughfares for an infinite amount of time because the federal regulation is silent, “argued Judge Mellissa May in the Indiana Appellate Court’s reversal of the lower court’s ruling. Indianapolis City-County Councilor Zach Adamson agreed with the appellate court’s decision, saying that “If (railroads) are, in fact, allowed to block (crossings) for as long as they feel like they want to, they can literally park broken down trains on major arteries in cities across America.  That can’t possibly have been the intent of Congress.”