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Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 4/27/2014 - Updated: 7 months ago

Train congestion spurs headaches, safety concerns near N. Baltimore

Crossings blocked for miles; weather, lack of space blamed

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Cargo containers await sorting at the CSX Northwest Ohio Terminal in North Baltimore in 2011. This year, partly because of harsh winter weather, trains have had long backups, frustrating buyers, sellers, transportation firms, and residents. Cargo containers await sorting at the CSX Northwest Ohio Terminal in North Baltimore in 2011. This year, partly because of harsh winter weather, trains have had long backups, frustrating buyers, sellers, transportation firms, and residents.
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NORTH BALTIMORE, Ohio — For most of the time since its opening three years ago, CSX’s North Baltimore Intermodal Terminal has been a source of pride for the company — one Vice President Joe Biden touted last fall as a shining example of private investment working with the public sector for economic growth.

But in recent months, the North Baltimore yard’s growth has caused growing pains for CSX and the communities along its tracks. Inbound trains back up while waiting for track space, blocking mainline tracks and road crossings for miles in either direction.

Combined with lingering congestion at other major railroad yards where traffic backed up during severe winter weather, those blockages have been headaches for local emergency officials.

“They’ve disrupted emergency services,” said Michael Bodenbender, Henry County sheriff. “We call CSX or file a complaint with [Public Utilities Commission of Ohio], but it just seems like it’s falling on deaf ears.”

The delays sometimes have a cascading effect, forcing trains carrying coal, automobiles, or other freight to wait for hours when ideally they would pass right through North Baltimore without stopping.

When those trains’ engineers and conductors reach the federal 12-hour working limit before they get to the next scheduled crew-change location along their routes, they too block the mainlines until a replacement crew can be sent out.

That sometimes doesn’t happen for many hours, because when many trains “die on the law,” crews end up in short supply.

Carla Groleau, a CSX spokesman, said the railroad is working to expand both the container-handling capacity and the arrival and departure yard tracks at the North Baltimore terminal.

“The projects will be complete as early as 2014,” she said.

Beyond that, the railroad spokesman blamed CSX’s congestion on this year’s harsh winter, which for days shut down all but the highest-priority rail traffic and caused freight to back up at rail terminals throughout the lower Great Lakes region.

“Winter weather has finally ended, and operational improvement continues to accelerate,” Ms. Groleau said. “CSX employees are dedicated to returning to the high levels of service as safely and swiftly as possible, and reducing any blocked-crossing impacts in the communities in which we operate.”

What CSX’s North Baltimore upgrade plan still lacks is any siding tracks along the main lines approaching the terminal where trains could be parked when they can’t get in — tracks that competitor Norfolk Southern’s parallel main line to the north through Toledo already has near many of its major terminals.

 

No place to go

Mainline sidings are similarly lacking near CSX’s major freight-car sorting yard in Willard and a lesser yard to the west, just over the state line in Garrett, Ind., where trains often are held because of congestion in Chicago.

Backups from Garrett are the main explanation Defiance County Sheriff David Westrick said he has received from CSX when he has called to complain about stopped trains blocking roads in his jurisdiction.

“There’s just no place for them to go,” Sheriff Westrick said. “Trains are so long now — two miles sometimes — that there’s no place they can stop without blocking every third road. They’ve been as helpful as they can, but the trains are backing up at Garrett and the holdup, they say, is in Chicago.”

Mr. Westrick said that so far, the worst blocked-crossing consequence he’s aware of in his county was a propane truck that became trapped when a stopped train blocked a dead-end road for four hours when extreme cold was causing some residents to run low on that heating fuel.

Mr. Bodenbender said, however, that response to a house fire late last year near the tracks west of Holgate, Ohio, may have been compromised because a stopped train delayed mutual-aid fire trucks coming in from a neighboring community.

“It’s more than an inconvenience,” the Henry County sheriff said. “It actually is a safety concern.”

Performance data CSX provides weekly to the Association of American Railroads confirm that shipments have, for many weeks, spent more time than normal in the Chicago yards. But even worse has been the “dwell time” at CSX’s yards in Toledo, Indianapolis, and Willard.

At Willard, a typical freight car needed 41.5 hours to arrive, be sorted into a new train, and leave during the week ending April 18. That was 17.5 hours longer than the Willard yard’s average “dwell” during the second quarter of 2013, and also was 7.5 hours worse than in late March of this year.

And when freight cars take longer to get through the yards, following trains waiting for their turn to get in wait longer.

“While congestion on our network is easing, we continue to have some surges of traffic impacting some of our processing yards and causing isolated congestion on our main lines,” Ms. Groleau explained

 

Out of time

CSX provides no comparable data for North Baltimore, but the visual evidence is plain to see, as was its reported average speed systemwide for intermodal trains, which at 25.7 mph during the week ending April 18 was more than 4 mph slower than a year ago.

One morning last weekend, two eastbound container trains were parked just west of Hoytville, at the North Baltimore yard’s west entrance, after their crews ran out of work time. A train loaded with crude oil was parked on one of two main tracks next to the yard, and a conga line of westbound container trains stopped on one of the two mains east of North Baltimore.

That meant that all other trains trying to get through the area had just one track to use for more than 20 miles between Deshler and the west side of Fostoria.

One such train, hauling general freight from Cincinnati to Willard, Ohio, waited so long at a red signal in Deshler while opposing trains ran that by the time it was allowed to go, it only got to Tiffin before its crew’s 12 hours were up.

By then, a new crew was on the oil train, which freed up part of the second track near North Baltimore, but parking the general-freight train near Tiffin reduced a different 10-mile section of main line to one track.

On another recent day, a train hauling new automobiles from Detroit to Louisville spent so much time waiting in Fostoria for a single-file parade past North Baltimore that its crew, which had gotten on board just 30 miles away in Walbridge, ran out of time there.

A replacement crew was sent to the higher-priority vehicle train right away, but it still fell many hours behind schedule on its trip to Louisville.

At least three westbound trains from Willard also were delayed for hours — the third of which wasn’t going past North Baltimore at all, but couldn’t get around the ones ahead of it to make a left turn at Fostoria and head down a track toward Marion, Ohio.

Spokesmen for General Motors and Chrysler both declined last week to comment specifically on CSX’s performance, but said they have had problems in general with recent rail-borne vehicle shipments.

“This winter’s severe weather has severely strained the North American rail network,” said Bill Grotz, GM’s manager of manufacturing and labor communications. “GM, like other automakers, is taking steps to ensure that our dealers and more importantly our customers are not affected by this situation. As weather improves, we anticipate that the railroads will be able to work through the backlog of vehicles awaiting shipment.”

“We have experienced delays of delivery of our finished vehicles due to rail car shortages,” said Katie Hepler, a Chrysler spokesman. “We are using alternative modes of transport and alternative routes where possible to move around the biggest problem areas. We have not lost any production as a result of these shortages.”

Coal trains that CSX delivers to Detroit Edison power plants in southeast Michigan also have been caught up in the congestion, but spokesman Erica Donerson said stockpiles remain adequate.

“It has been a rough winter for moving coal across Lake Superior and the Great Lakes, as well as by rail,” she said. “The railroads are still making up shipments delayed by the harsh winter. Despite those challenges, we’ve been able to serve our customers.”

According to Ohio law, railroad companies are not to obstruct public roads with cars for longer than five minutes. But the law also does not apply to circumstances deemed beyond the railroad’s control. Tickets can be issued to rail companies as a result.

But Mark Wasylyshyn, the Wood County sheriff, said it’s a grin-and-bear-it situation for him and emergency responders in his county because court rulings have gone against agencies that used to write tickets for trains blocking road crossings.

“They said that’s interfering with interstate commerce,” Mr. Wasylyshyn said. “The crossings are private property. If they want to block the crossing, they can block the crossing.”

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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