Trains blocking railroad crossings in parts of Ashtabula County have left local leaders in Saybrook Township beyond frustrated and concerned.
Local trustees, public safety officials and the school transportation director want state lawmakers to push CSX to rectify the potentially dangerous problem before it is too late.
The issues run like clockwork. At any given moment on any given day, one of the five railroad crossings in Saybrook Township will be blocked by an idled train. The delays, which can last hours on end, essentially cut the township in half. It remains unclear as to why the trains are idling.
“It started five or six weeks ago. We’ve been having unusually long periods of time with blocked crossings,” said Robert Brobst, a township trustee. “It is a fear of ours. We don’t want somebody to lose their home or lose their life because of a blocked crossing.”
Brobst’s concerns are shared by local law enforcement as well. Because the rail line dissects many of the area’s north-south roadways, a law enforcement officer may not be able to respond to emergency calls as quickly. The same goes for the local school district, which transports 3100 students every day.
“We as a school bus operation, any school bus operation, runs on a schedule,” said Kathrine Baltes, the interim transportation director for Ashtabula city schools. “Schedules are important to parents, teachers and nutrition services. When the rails are blocked and sometimes up to 30 minutes or as much as an hour, it dramatically impacts what we do.”
Baltes said bus drivers can’t easily take a detour either, because CSX doesn’t notify the school district when a railroad crossing will be blocked and for how long.
“I guess it is like a fox hunt out there to find the open rail so you can get back on your route,” Baltes said. “We’ve been as late as 45 minutes in the afternoon. We had a bus this morning, for instance, that was hung up for 45 minutes.”
Luckily for the township fire department, the agency has a fire house on the north and south sides of town. But a blocked railroad crossing can still present challenges, according to fire chief John Jyurovat.
“We’ve lived with this problem for years and it’s never been a major problem,” Jyurovat said. “The past five and a half weeks, it has become a big, big, big problem.”
Township officials said they have tried to reach out to CSX directly in order to express their concerns. Brobst said the rail company has not been forthcoming. At minimum, Baltes said the school district wants CSX to provide officials a relative idea of when crossings might be blocked.
According to Ohio state statute, a train can block a crossing for no more than five minutes. If law enforcement sees that a crossing has been blocked for more than five minutes, the rail company can be cited. Each citation can carry a fine of up to $1000.
“We have issued some citations to hopefully get their attention but our main goal is to be able to work with CSX,” said Lt. Bret Henderson of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Late last month, local officials, firefighters and law enforcement officers met with U.S. Representative David Joyce. The next goal is to have a sit down meeting with CSX officials to iron out the issues.
News 5 reached out to CSX for a comment, who responded with the following statement:
"CSX strives to be a good neighbor to communities where we operate, and we work hard to minimize the impact of our operations. We understand there are challenges that exist in Ashtabula County and we apologize for any inconvenience stopped trains may have caused the local community. CSX is reviewing our operations to determine whether improvements can be made, while also keeping an open line of communication with community leaders and first responders. We look forward to continuing discussions with them about how we can work together to support the safe and efficient flow of freight rail in Ashtabula."