WALBRIDGE — Norfolk Southern is using Lake Township as a parking lot for its trains, and residents and emergency officials are fed up.
“These crossings are blocked more now than they’re open,” said Lake Township Police Chief Mark Hummer, who is also the township administrator. “They are doing nothing more as using it as a rail yard or a staging yard.”
Several crossings in the township are often blocked for hours — if not days — at a time. Most recently, Walbridge Road was blocked for 83 hours straight
Marvin Burns lives just west of the Walbridge Road crossing, where a train loomed for most of last weekend, into Tuesday.
He said the train blockages started becoming noticeable a couple of years ago but have steadily become worse. Trains used to be 60-80 cars long, but now often can be up to 150.
Burns has been keeping a log of the blocked crossings around the township for about a year now.
He’s willing to give the railroad some slack for pandemic or supply chain issues, but it just seems to have escalated to abuse over the last few months, Burns said. He doesn’t understand why Norfolk Southern engineers don’t break the stopped trains, which would clear a crossing.
The logs blossomed into full-fledged research for Burns about blocked crossings.
Through the Ohio Department of Transportation website’s blocked crossing tab, Burns said he learned that three crossings in Lake Township — Walbridge, Lemoyne and Pemberville roads — make up 25% of all Ohio railroad blockages.
“Three crossings out of thousands,” Burns said, shaking his head.
The Walbridge Road crossing is No. 1 in the country for being blocked. Lemoyne Road is No. 3 in the country.
Ohio is No. 2 in the nation for blocked crossings.
Burns said he pursues his logs and research because he’s passionate about preventing a tragedy.
Emergency vehicles often have to take a detour around the blocked crossing, costing precious minutes.
In May, Fire Chief Bruce Moritz said that a blockage hampered a transport after a 90-minute extrication of a truck driver on Libbey Road after a three-vehicle crash.
“It’s creating a safety issue for the township. It’s inconvenient, but the real issue is it’s creating is a safety issue,” Burns said. “Someone’s going to die or someone’s house is going to burn down.”
“Something bad is going to happen to someone because we can’t get Norfolk Southern to cooperate,” he said. “Some day it is not going to have a good ending.”
Hummer said he hopes it doesn’t take a human tragedy to get the railroad company’s attention.
For more than a year now, he and the township trustees have been trying to get a response from the railroad company, reaching out for assistance to Ohio Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, R-Perrysburg; Ohio Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Huron; and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green.
Latta, in a Wednesday phone interview, said that he is going to lead a meeting with township and railroad officials.
“It’s not acceptable,” he said of the blocked crossings. “It’s one of the worst in the country.
“For safety reasons, for people convenience, for school buses, you can’t have these railroads blocking the road,” Latta said.
The goal of the meeting is for Norfolk Southern to “come to a commitment that they’re not going to do that. They need to be a good corporate citizen,” Latta said.
Ghanbari has cosponsored House Bill 361 to address railroad blockages. As written now, it would fine railroads $5,000 for a first blocked crossing violation and $10,000 for a second within 30 days, he said.
The bill had an initial hearing in the transportation and public safety committee.
“The railroads have indicated to me — several different companies — that they certainly don’t believe the fines are the way to go,” Ghanbari said in a Thursday interview. “But there needs to be something more than a friendly warning when they’re blocking our tracks.”
The bill would also require the railroad to report to Public Utilities Commission of Ohio anytime there is a blocked crossing. PUCO would compile an annual report, Ghanbari said.
Other solutions are on the table, he said. One idea is technology that would alert first responders when there is a blockage, so they can take an immediate detour.
An overpass could be built using federal, state and local dollars, but this is very expensive, Ghanbari said.
There have been similar blocked crossing concerns in North Baltimore with the CSX intermodal, he added.
Ghanbari also said that a Norfolk Southern representative had been slated to meet with him and township officials last month, but that meeting was canceled due to a snow storm. He hopes to have a new meeting scheduled in the next two weeks.
Connor Spielmaker, media relations manager with Norfolk Southern, said people who see blocked crossings should call the 1-800 number on the blue sign.
“That is the best way to notify us a crossing is blocked,” he said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
“We never want to inconvenience a member of the community with blocked crossings. Our railroad plays a vital role in the nation’s supply chain, helping to move the goods that power our economy. We are working hard to keep our trains moving efficiently and minimize these types of impacts, and we continue to value our dialogue with local officials on solutions that benefit the community,” Spielmaker said.
Burns said he has seen semi-trucks come down Walbridge Road, only to have to back up a half mile to Interstate 280 because the crossing is blocked.
Lake Local School buses travel the rail crossings on either Walbridge, Pemberville, Mathews or Ayers roads 52 times each day, according to Burns’ research.
Hummer said he will continue to beat the drum to clear the crossings, and get the railroad to move from conversations to action.
“I just wish at some point I would get some action on it,” he said. “Norfolk Southern is using our community of 13,000 people as a rail yard and not a rail line.”