by Robin Kemp

If you live in Forest Park, you know that Norfolk Southern frequently parks trains so long, they block most or all of the railroad crossings–sometimes for hours. When this happens, the only way to cross the tracks is under the railroad bridge at Jonesboro Road.

Residents find it annoying. City officials say it’s dangerous. Norfolk Southern says that’s life in a railroad town.

Forest Park’s history is intertwined with the railroad. In 1846, it was called Quick Station, and it’s where the Macon and Western Railroad would load up on wood for the engines. The stop earned the nickname “Stump Town.” In 1908, the city was incorporated. In 2022, residents contend with 19th-century technology for which no quick and easy solutions exist.

“This is a problem”

Ward 1 Councilwoman Kimberly James has been advocating for some time to get Norfolk Southern to stop parking its trains across the city’s rail crossings. On Monday, both the Forest Park High School boys’ and girls’ basketball teams had to work around the train.

Forest Park Ward 1 Councilwoman Kimberly James

“I am leaving the school on Phillips Drive and the train, again, is parked on the tracks,” James said Monday. “We have basketball games this evening, and our bus was not able to make the left turn. Because of course, with the train being on the track, the light is not going to change. So the bus could not even make the left turn to get to their destination. They had to change their signal and make a right turn and, some kind of way, get to where they can get redirected so they can make their space.”

Both teams were affected, she said.

“I just spoke with Mr. Ross, who was on the first bus with the boys and I called him and he said, yeah, they experienced the same thing. They actually had to turn right because the train was on the track when they left. It’s 6:13. Right now the train is on the track. And I’m sure they left about 3:30 to leave for the game, for the earlier game. And the train was on the track. So this is a problem.”

Every time it happens, James gets her constituents to call.

“I’m about to get home and send a message to my residents to contact Conner Poe. Again, to let him know that this cannot be acceptable in our city.”

At the time, James said, she was stuck by the CVS on Forest Park and Phillips Drive.

“I’m about to go ahead and get to where I can turn right on Forest Parkway because I cannot turn left because of the train and the light signal will not change.”

A Norfolk Southern train travels past Lake Drive towards West Street in Forest Park. Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent

On January 18, Mayor Angelyne Butler told The Clayton Crescent she has been in touch with the Congressional delegation about the matter, and that Forest Park police, fire, and EMS crews were considering staging units on the other side of the tracks to ensure speedy response times.

“We didn’t realize it was going to go on as long as it is,” Butler said.

What to do?

City officials say the trains blocking city streets pose a safety risk.

On December 27, Forest Park Fire Battalion Chief Jon Baker noted in an End of Shift Report, “The train was parked across all north and south bound crossings from 6 a.m. until 1 p.m. which caused delayed responses for the incredible call volume we had. It has become routine over the last couple of months for the train to park for 4-7 hours while they change out operators. One of the calls that I was delayed on was a cardiac arrest that I had to reroute on and go from College and Main to Jonesboro Rd. to Forest Parkway. I was delivering the Lucas to the crew performing CPR. With your permission, I would like to set up a meeting with Norfolk Southern Managers to work towards a better solution for preventing the train from blocking all crossings for these lengths of time.”

City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper sent Baker’s notice out to Butler and councilmembers, adding, “We have expressed these concerns to Conner Poe, Regional Vice President of Norfolk Southern whom some of you have spoken to, and he made it seem like some one was making up things. However, we are doing all we can to mitigate this matter.”

James said that Poe had been “arrogant” the first time she called: “He said, ‘Well, that’s our tracks and we can park it wherever we want.’ Once we started the phone calls, he would say they’re trying to get it out of our way, ‘we’re trying not to block any of your events.'”

Butler added that the problem seems to have gotten worse over the last month.

The Hale Road railroad crossing in Forest Park. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

“And it’s not just that they’re stalled, it’s the length of time that they are there,” Butler added. “It’s a hazard on so many different levels. But I do appreciate the gentleman–I can’t remember his name–but we are in constant communication and he is being responsive. I think there’s always more that we can do.”

The Clayton Crescent asked Poe to comment on FPFD’s December 27 detour at the Ash Street crossing.

“When I get a question like this, one, I have to identify exactly where it is and talk to basically the dispatcher, the person that runs the yard, and the person that does the planning,” he said, and promised a detailed response.

In 2021, Georgia Department of Transportation explicitly addressed the issue of blocked railroad crossings in an executive summary of its Georgia State Rail Plan: “In some areas, highway-rail crossings are blocked for extended periods of time due to ongoing changes in railroad industry operations. Railroads have prioritized operating fewer total trains while maintaining the throughput of goods. This has resulted in much longer trains which when stopped block more crossings. These blockages create not only mobility issues —because motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic is impeded—but also safety issues. They can block first responders from responding to calls, and if pedestrians cannot locate a nearby safe crossing around the train, they may choose to traverse the active railroad tracks before the train moves, leading to risk of serious injury or death.”

A check of railroad crossing incidents in Clayton County between 2017 and 2021 showed incidents on a steady decline:

Clayton County has seen 14 incidents at public railroad crossings between 2017 and 2021, resulting in four injuries. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration)

On Friday, Norfolk Southern Media Relations spokesperson Connor Spielmaker e-mailed The Clayton Crescent:

“The City of Forest Park has seen an uptick in rail traffic for a variety of reasons, but most prominently is the extreme demand for the transportation of goods in our state. Demand across all businesses is up – and we’re proud [to] move a lot of those goods.

“Despite the nearby underpass that allows for unrestricted access to the other side of the tracks, we recognize that this short detour can still at times be inconvenient. To address that, our crews have been instructed to keep downtown crossings open whenever operationally possible. When train-length doesn’t allow for that, the underpass is the way to go. We know this route adds a few minutes, but it is always open.

The underpass at Jonesboro Road is the only way to get around a stopped train in an emergency in Forest Park. Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent

“Further, we are in constant contact with both the mayor’s office and the city council. Like the mayor mentioned recently during a city council meeting, these issues are native to railroad towns and the solutions to them are complicated. These valuable relationships help us seek those solutions in a way that works for everyone while continuing to help us serve the Georgia and U.S. economies.

“I hope that background helps, and we’d appreciate you including the following statement in your article:

“‘Norfolk Southern never wants to inconvenience a member of the community with blocked crossings. We know these impacts are felt distinctly in areas that have seen rapid growth around our tracks, and our operations teams make every effort to lessen them. We’ll continue those efforts while seeking long-term solutions with local leaders.'”

Why are the trains so long?

You might have noticed Norfolk Southern rail cars with containers stacked two and three high lately. In December, to address the backup of containers waiting to be unloaded at the Port of Savannah, Norfolk Southern started moving containers from the port to the pop-up terminal and then on to Atlanta. (And the more Clayton County moves into the warehouse and distribution business, the more containers will eventually be pulled by big-rig trucks through local streets.)

Whatever happens at the Port of Savannah has a direct impact on Clayton County. However, Spielmaker said rail traffic specifically to and from the Port of Savannah isn’t the problem–it’s that a lot of rail traffic in general is coming in and out of the Atlanta hub.

Clayton County Railroad Crossings

CITY/COUNTY PUBLIC PRIVATE TOTAL
College Park 1 0 1
Conley 5 0 5
Ellenwood 4 0 4
Forest Park 15 4 19
Jonesboro 10 1 11
Lake City 2 0 2
Lovejoy 3 0 3
Morrow 12 2 14
Mountain View 3 1 4
Rex 2 0 2
CLAYTON COUNTY 57 8 65

“The volume began to ramp back up last fall as manufacturers raced to keep up with increasing consumer demand,” Spielmaker explained. “This line serves a large part of the automobile business, as well. This line is largely irrelevant to Savannah and the pop-ups since it does not carry intermodal (container) goods. It isn’t the main route to Savannah and takes traffic from a number of other places in our network coming into the Atlanta area.”

“So there’s really not like Point A to B,” he added. “There’s a variety of stuff that comes through, stuff that’s traveling through Forest Park on its way to or from Atlanta to the rest of the country. There’s stuff that’s coming through there from Florida, Alabama, Georgia. Atlanta’s a big hub for us, so we send stuff all the way–it could be going out west to Chicago, it could be going up north. It just runs the gamut.”

We asked Spielmaker to clarify what Norfolk Southern’s recommendation to first responders might be.

“Our Police Communications Center is staffed 24/7/365 and is reachable via the 800 number posted at all crossings,” he replied. “Additionally, that open line of communication between us and city officials includes first responders.”

A car crosses the Norfolk Southern railroad track in Forest Park. Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent

Spielmaker added that Norfolk Southern had not heard from any members of Congress about railroad crossings being blocked.

“To date, we have been handling the concerns with local officials in Forest Park,” he said.

Other south Atlanta communities affected

The problem of Norfolk Southern parking trains across railroad crossings is not unique to Forest Park. Other municipalities and neighborhoods along the railroad, from Lakewood Heights to Adair Park, also complain that Norfolk Southern is parking its trains across railroad crossings in their communities–sometimes for hours or even days, the AJC’s Nedra Rhone noted in a pair of opinion pieces.

Writing about the railroad’s negative impact on neighborhoods just over the county line, Rhone asserted, “Now is a good time for Norfolk Southern to be a ‘good corporate citizen’ in this community as it has been in other Atlanta neighborhoods.”

In September, The Clayton Crescent reported that Norfolk Southern was unwilling to share right of way with the proposed Clayton County MARTA commuter rail–effectively killing the plan–and that it “reportedly wanted to keep its options open, given the growth of shipping traffic into and out of Clayton County.”

Down the track in Morrow, City Manager Jeff Baker said the city hasn’t had any issues with trains blocking the railroad crossings.

“Other than the occasional accident, we don’t have any issues that we’ve been informed of. No, we don’t typically have that problem. I won’t say never, but it’s a rarity,” Baker said.

He added, “My wife works in McDonough and sometimes she calls me, and trust me, I hear when she’s calling up about the train, and all three crossings are blocked and all this. I think they may be getting backed up sometimes on the hub closer to Atlanta and down on to McDonough. I’ve never seen anything on that but Forest Park seems to be the place to get it.”


Resources

♦ The number to report grade crossing problems and suspicious activity to Norfolk Southern Police is (800) 453-2530. In an emergency, call 911.

♦ You can report a blocked railroad crossing to the Federal Railroad Administration at https://www.fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings/.

According to the site, “There are no federal laws or regulations pertaining to blocked crossings. Therefore, this information is only being used to track the location and impacts of blocked crossings. FRA’s purpose of collecting this information is to learn where, when, for how long, and what impacts result from blocked highway-rail grade crossings. FRA may share this information with stakeholders, including railroads, state and local governments, and other federal authorities. There may be legitimate operating and/or safety-related reasons for a crossing to be occupied by a slow or idling train.”

♦ A check of the FRA’s online crossing reports map showed reports of blockages at 50 railroad crossings throughout Clayton County, 49 of which were Norfolk Southern’s. (One crossing near the airport where a blocked crossing was reported belongs to CSX.)

♦ When you see the train coming, keep in mind: your car will lose against a train at any speed.

  • Expect a train when you approach crossings
  • Always obey warning signals and signs
  • Never try to beat a train at a crossing
  • If the warning signals are broken, never drive around lowered gates unless a uniformed police officer or train crew member directs you to do so
  • Never drive over a crossing unless you can stop without any part of your vehicle on the track: do not get hung up on the crossing!

♦ Here’s a 2017 webinar (with slides) hosted by the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, on blocked railway crossings:

https://connectdot.connectsolutions.com/p7frpkbc1b9w/

Have you had a problem with train crossings in Clayton County? Tell us about it.

Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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