Editorial: Let feds know about long delays at rail crossings

  • A freight train blocks a crossing in Prospect Heights. The Federal Railroad Administration has created a website to report train delays.

    A freight train blocks a crossing in Prospect Heights. The Federal Railroad Administration has created a website to report train delays. Daily Herald File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 1/24/2020 9:33 AM

We will take the Federal Railroad Administration at its word that it wants to hear from us regarding how long we get stuck, repeatedly, at rail crossings in the suburbs.

And so, it is our civic duty to tell them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

We're not being facetious. Being continuously hung up at crossings is a quality-of-life issue. At best, it can be inconvenient. At its absolute worst, it can be deadly, if police, fire and paramedics are prevented from getting to a scene -- or a hospital -- quickly.

The FRA has recently started a website asking people to report lengthy delays they experience at rail crossings, where a milelong freight is crawling past at the speed of ... snails. That website, brought to us by transportation writer Marni Pyke, is www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings.

The agency wants data on blocked crossings, to help identify chronic situations where trains cause traffic jams and hamstring police and paramedics for long stretches of time.

To be clear, railroads are not the enemy. They are part of our suburban landscape and a big part of our region's economy. Trains are considerably more energy-efficient than over-the-road trucks -- which would be carrying the freight if trains weren't here to do it. But they need to work with us.

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Our suburbs have been working with -- and around -- railroads for more than 150 years. They locate fire stations strategically, based on where the tracks are. They negotiate with railroads to limit the nighttime whistle blowing.

What's changed? Trains are getting longer. And that has resulted in some spectacularly lengthy blockages, which in turn has led to desperate people doing dangerous things: Witness the people crawling under a freight stopped in Barrington for at least an hour on one day in 2018.

According to Pyke's reporting, the Government Accountability Office says freight trains are about 25% longer than they were in 2008. Some railroads average 1.2-mile to 1.4-mile trains and one railroad told the GAO it runs a 3-mile-long train twice week.

That's not every train, or even most trains, but you see the trend.

By giving the FRA data it needs, theoretically our communities, the state and the feds all get a better picture of where money can do the most good -- building bypasses, changing rail schedules, etc. We say theoretically because there is no guarantee, of course, that knowledge will equal power.

The FRA has pledged to make the information public once it has enough reliable data.

At that's as good as any place to start. So let's use that time when we're stuck at a crossing to record the data and then share it with the FRA. It can only help.

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