Fewer trains, but railroad still a pain for some

Lakewood residents who live along the city’s main stretch of railroad tracks are seeing fewer trains than they did 30 years ago, but are plagued by louder horns and unannounced herbicide sprayings.

Councilperson Thomas Bullock (Ward 2) held a meeting of the Public Works Committee last Monday to learn more about these issues and other train-related matters.

Before there was a city, there was the railroad

Ken Prendergast, executive director of the passenger rail and public transportation advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, said the railroads predate most city streets.

The Chicago Line, located south of Birdtown, was built in 1853. The Nickel Plate Line, which sprawls across the northern section of the city, was created in 1868. Detroit Rd. existed, but was a privately-owned wood plank toll road. Clifton Blvd wasn’t built until 1902.

As a result of various mergers and acquisitions over the last few decades, Norfolk Southern now owns and operates both lines. Although, in somewhat of a quirk, their local dispatch center is located in Dearborn, Michigan.

Prendergast, who is a Lakewood resident, touted the economy and efficiency of moving freight via rail. One railcar can carry the equivalent of three tractor-trailers.  He said 10% more cargo moved through the region last year on the Chicago Line – 100 million gross tons altogether – than traversed on the Ohio Turnpike.

Good cooperation from city during recent repairs

Nicholson and the tracks, looking west

Norfolk Southern was pleased with the city's prompt cooperation in temporarily closing streets so repairs could be made on railroad crossings.

William J. (“Bill”) Harris III, Norfolk Southern’s vice-president of government relations for the state of Ohio, praised the City of Lakewood for its cooperation on work being performed on the pavement, tracks, and sidewalks at certain railroad crossings.

Traffic on streets affected by construction was promptly redirected on a temporary basis. Harris said that in Cleveland, it takes as many as three or four weeks to navigate the bureaucracy and close a street.

Harris, like Prendergast, boasted of the efficiency, safety, and environmental benefits of shipping freight via rail. He said that on a per-mile basis, trains are four-times more efficient than trucks. He also pointed out that highway-based cargo haulers have a fatality rate ten-times greater than the railroad.

Open to sharing their tracks with passenger trains – sort of

Norfolk Southern’ s bread and butter is the fast and affordable transit of freight. They don’t necessarily appreciate things – like passenger trains – that have the potential to disrupt their processes.

Harris said freight traffic could co-exist with passenger traffic if four principles are observed.

First, passenger traffic must be “transparent” to freight traffic. In other words, a boxcar load of cargo must be able to travel from point A to point B without being held-up by a passenger train. Second, the railroad must be fairly compensated for use of its tracks. Third, safety must be a priority. Fourth, liability must be addressed in an economically reasonable manner. Harris said there was a commuter train accident in San Diego that resulted in safety requirements that cost the railroad industry billions of dollars.

Harris said the plan to connect Cleveland to Columbus and Cincinnati (known as 3C) via passenger rail would have more challenges adhering to the four principles than the West Shore Corridor Project, which would connect Sandusky and Cleveland.

Position on herbicide spray called ‘troubling,’ ‘strange’ by council president

Lakeland and the Tracks

Ohio law dictates that the railroad must keep clear sight lines within 600 feet of a train crossing. (Above, view from Lakeland Ave. and the tracks)

State law demands that Northfolk Southern keep clear sight lines at all railroad crossings. They must “destroy or remove plants, trees, brush or other obstructive vegetation…for a distance of 600 ft. or a reasonably safe distance” at each intersection.

In the name of safety, they basically have a license to spray herbicides and scorch the Earth within their right-of-way throughout the entire city.

Councilperson Nickie Antonio (At-Large) wrote a letter in September of 2009 to her council colleagues and the mayor after getting citizen complaints about how the chemical was being applied. (see .PDF).

Councilperson Kevin Butler (Ward 1) probed Harris on the subject, who explained herbicide is applied in April and May, with spot treatment at various other times throughout the year. It takes about 30 minutes for a crew to treat the swath of track that runs through the city. He said it would be “impractical” for the railroad to supply the city with advance notice because of the fluid nature of the task.

Butler felt “somewhat troubled” by Harris’ explanation. “That just seems strange to me,” he said, and questioned why Norfolk Southern can give the city a heads-up about routine maintenance construction, but cannot extend the same courtesy before they spray herbicides.

Harris said construction is handled on a system-wide basis, whereas spraying is done by contractors on a localized basis. Issuing ad hoc spray warnings in the absence of a formal communication program “becomes problematic for the railroad” because it creates expectations that cannot be met, he said.

Butler said he still didn’t understand why their contractor wouldn’t be able to call the city before spraying. “That could be a five-minute phone call,” he said.

Public Works Director Joesph Beno stated residents just need enough notice to prepare their yards, and protect any items that could be damaged.

Butler said he would call Harris and follow-up on the issue.

Stores source of litter, trespassing

Sergeant Edward Favre said there have been just two train derailments in the city since he joined the police force nearly 37 years ago. One incident occurred near Cove Ave. after trespassers placed debris on the tracks. The collision caused a boxcar to tip over. The other derailment happened near Geil Ave when a group of teenagers placed a very large tree stump on tracks. The locomotive struck the obstacle and stayed upright, but a couple of its wheels left the rail.

Prior to the installation of gates at each city railroad crossing, there was an average of one car versus train accident per month, and about one railroad-related fatality each year.  Nowadays, Favre said, people killed on the tracks are usually suicides.

It’s illegal for anyone to be on or near the railroad tracks. According to Favre, the most trespassed areas are in the East End between Discount Drug Mart and the apartments located on North Lane Drive and South Lane Drive and in Downtown Lakewood, behind Kaufman Park by Discount Drug Mart.

On the whole, trespassing isn’t as big a problem as it is in Cleveland. He said the Lakewood PD and Norfolk Southern security recently conducted a joint trespassing sweep and didn’t catch anyone.

Incidentally, the high frequency trespassing areas have a significant litter situation from plastic grocery bags. Favre suggested fencing off the northwest corner of the park to cut down on the problem.

On the whole, Favre described Norfolk Southern as a “very safe railroad.” He said they have an “excellent working relationship” with the police and at one time offered a good track safety program in city schools.

Quiet zone is cost prohibitive

Lakewood’s 27 railroad crossings are experiencing considerably less train traffic than in previous years. An average of 3.1 locomotives per day rolled through on the city’s northernmost set of tracks in August, according to data provided to the city’s law department by the railroad. An agreement forged with Norfolk Southern in 1998 caps the amount of traffic at no more than 13.9 trains per day. In the 1980s, Favre noted, the city had a daily average of 20.

Another change Favre noticed is that train horns have gotten louder and more piercing. Norfolk Southern representative Bill Harris pointed out that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) mandates horn decibel levels. It can be no louder than 110 decibels (comparable to a jackhammer) and no softer than 96 decibels (comparable to a circular saw).

A look at the FRA’s train horn rules help explain why locomotive engineers are not the most popular people in the city. Train horns must be sounded for a minimum of 15 seconds, and a maximum of 20 seconds in advance of each railroad crossing. The horn must be sounded in a standardized pattern of two long, one short, and one long. The sound must continue until the lead locomotive occupies the crossing point.

It’s not too bad if a city has handful of crossings, but Lakewood has 27. A conductor who properly follows the rules will blow the horn practically nonstop from West 117th to Rocky River for a minimum of almost seven minutes.

Councilperson Monique Smith (At-Large) wondered if conductors might be able to exercise more discretion, and use their horns sparingly.

“Norfolk Southern is the safest railroad in America,” Harris replied. “We’re going to err on the side of safety.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘No’,” said Smith.

Harris responded, “I think that’s a good way to take it.”

There are 380 quiet zones across the United States where railroad crossings have been modified in ways that allow train traffic safely through without the need to sound a locomotive horn. Three Ohio cities –Brook Park, Springfield and Moraine – have established quiets zones. The cities of North Olmsted and Macedonia are following suit.

Many more cities would join the club, but are unable to afford the cost. Because quiet zones are considered a “local comfort,” federal and state governments don’t provide any money. Rocky River, for instance, studied the issue (.PDF) in 2006 and found it to be too expensive.

When he was a member of the Planning Commission, Councilperson Brian Powers (At-Large) said quiet zones were a “non-starter” because of their “unbelievable expensive.”

Officer Favre said the David Harbarger administration proposed changing certain through streets into dead-ends in order to reduce the number of railroad crossings. The plan quickly soured because it did not include community input, he said.

There are about a half-dozen different ways a train crossing can be modified to make it safe enough for a quiet zone. The FRA has a quiet zone calculator on their Web site that allows users to get a rough idea of the required expenses. The cost of installing mid-level safety enhancements at each of the city’s rail intersections would be $3.1 million. As a quick aside, according to their automobile traffic study, the Bunts Rd. and Webb Rd. intersections are the top two busiest. The Fry Ave. and Bonnieview Ave. intersections saw the least amount of traffic.

City ‘uniquely positioned’ for West Shore Corridor Project

A contingent representing the Westshore Commuter Rail Task Force gave a presentation about the effort to create a passenger rail line from Sandusky to Cleveland. They are in the first phase of a process that typically lasts 7 to 12 years.

Without going into a lot of detail, West Shore Corridor Project Manger Richard Enty said Lakewood is “uniquely positioned” to benefit from the project. Councilperson Butler said the pitch to win community support for the project will hinge on what kind of benefits the city will see, and what, if anything, it would have to contribute.

See some of the literature (.pdf) provided by the corridor proponents.

A final note: Only about three members of the public attended this meeting.

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