Railroad crossings present issues for county’s cities

Published 9:16 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

On a map of Alabama, a spider web-like cluster of train tracks originates in the state’s largest city before exploding in all directions to connect Birmingham with other large southern hubs.

For decades, Shelby County’s businesses, and its proximity to Birmingham, has brought many of the area’s busiest railroads through the county.

Many of Shelby County’s rails traverse heavily wooded terrain and sparsely populated areas, but the county’s recent population growth has increasingly brought railroads and busy highways together.

For cities such as Alabaster, which has experienced a 34-percent growth over the past 10 years, railroad crossings near busy intersections can cause several problems for motorists rushing to reach their destinations, said Alabaster City Administrator George Henry.

Henry said he receives calls nearly every day from motorists reporting trains stopped across a railroad crossing, especially at crossings on Fulton Springs Road, Alabama 119 and Industrial Road.

When a train stops across a crossing, Henry said many residents believe a city law regulates how long the train can block the road. However, train issues are often “outside the realm of (the city’s) jurisdiction,” he said.

“Alabama law has no applicable statute concerning this issue,” Henry said. “I was always told that it was 15 minutes. Other cities tried to control this but there is federal law that also protects the railroad.”

Because the city’s power is limited on railroad-owned property, it often causes frustration for Alabaster and its residents, Henry said.

“I know it’s a huge inconvenience for residents and drivers, and they think its’ the city who does not do anything,” Henry said.

Even when a train travels through the city at full speed, it can cause modifications to the traffic signals on U.S. 31, Henry said.

“Every time a train comes past 119 and Industrial Road, the signal there goes through a cycle, and can take hours to get back to normal,” Henry said.

Henry said he is in the process of working with CSX, the owner of many of the county’s railroad tracks, to find a compromise which would allow the company to conduct its business while minimizing the impact on motorists.

Alabaster’s surrounding cities also face some train-related issues.

Helena has two high-traffic crossings on Shelby County 261, but the city rarely experiences trains stopping on the tracks, said Helena police Deputy Chief Tim Carter.

“We really don’t have a problem with them blocking the crossings,” Carter said. “I think it used to happen more than it does now.”

Neighboring Pelham also saw a reduction in blocked crossings when Stonehaven Trail was completed several years ago.

“Before Stonehaven Trail was opened, a train could block the tracks on (Shelby County 52) and cut our emergency responders off from that side of the town,” said Pelham police Capt. Larry Palmer. “But having another way to get over there has really cut down on that.”

CSX spokeswoman Carla Groleau said the company considers blocked crossings “railroad emergencies,” and encouraged those affected to contact CSX directly at 1-800-232-0144.

She said callers should be prepared to give their name, their location and what they observed at the crossing.

“First and foremost, CSX is committed to safety in the communities served by our rail network,” Groleau wrote in a statement.