Relief may be on the way for Southwest Side residents forced to endure interminable and potentially dangerous waits at railroad crossings, some of them located near hospitals.
Chicago is joining forces with the Village of Evergreen Park in an effort to force CSX Transportation to live up to the commitments it made to the Surface Transportation Board after acquiring the rights to operate on the Elsdon Line in 2013.
To minimize delays at grade crossings, CSX was required to break trains into two parts whenever a blockage was expected to exceed 10 minutes. But Chicago and Evergreen Park maintain the railroad’s own quarterly reports show CSX has cut only one train in three years.
Despite rules tailor-made to prevent lengthy delays, CSX trains frequently block at-grade crossings for long periods of time, inconveniencing Southwest Side and southwest suburban commuters during rush hours.
Blockages frequently occur along 95th Street in Evergreen Park, potentially endangering residents because those lengthy delays impede access to Little Company of Mary Hospital and Advocate Christ Medical Center, one of the only trauma centers serving Chicago’s South Side, the city claims.
In a petition jointly filed with the Surface Transportation Board, Chicago and Evergreen Park are seeking fines and other sanctions, continued monitoring and additional auditing with the potential to hold the railroad’s feet to the fire.
Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose Southwest Side ward includes Beverly and Mount Greenwood, said he has spent three years trying to “work cooperatively” with CSX to reduce delays that can drag on for hours, but has ” little to show” for those efforts.
“We’ve had stoppages for four hours. You have kids, teenagers, young adults walking down the street. When delays go on for too long, kids will climb under the train between cars. At some point, that train is going to start moving. Luckily, we’ve avoided a tragedy. But this is a problem,” O’Shea said.
“Our trauma center is Advocate Christ at 95th and Kostner. It’s not a question of, if a train is stopping an ambulance from getting there. It’s when.”
O’Shea said it’s not unusual for trains to stop late on a Friday afternoon and block multiple crossing for 90 minutes during rush hour.
“That’s people trying to get home from work. So, what do people do? They start racing through the community down residential streets to make up the 15 minutes they just lost sitting. That’s putting kids in harm’s way,” O’Shea said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said his goal is to “hold the railroad accountable for [its] repeated violations in order to bring relief” to local residents.
“Ever since CSX secured the right to operate on this track, residents have told us that trains along the Elsdon Line routinely cause lengthy delays that not only inconvenience residents, but threaten public safety by blocking access to area hospitals,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release.
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle countered that the company has “worked diligently to limit the impact” on neighborhoods like Beverly and Evergreen Park since beginning operations on the Elsdon line in 2013 and would continue to do so.
“CSX also has invested in significant improvements along the Elsdon line, including replacing approximately 42,000 railroad ties; installing new signal technology; rebuilding Elsdon line road crossings with new premium surfaces at 127th Street, 119th Street, 115th Street, 111th Street, 103rd Street, 99th Street, 95th Street, 94th and Kedzie, 91st Street, and 87th Street; and installing camera monitoring technology to allow us to view track operating conditions and make changes in real time,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
Doolittle argued that CSX has been “collaborative and transparent” with community leaders by providing periodic progress reports on its efforts to minimize delays. Those efforts will continue.
But, he also said, “The CSX Elsdon line remains important to the entire Chicago region to balance the safe delivery of commerce.”
State Sen. Bill Cunningham, whose district includes Evergreen Park and Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood, accused CSX of ignoring the promises it made to operate a “safe and efficient” rail line through those communities.
“The legal action taken … demonstrates that Chicago and Evergreen Park will do everything possible to hold CSX accountable for their neglect,” Cunningham was quoted as saying in a the news release.
If precedent is any indication, fines against CSX could be substantial.
A 2007 case culminated in the Surface Transportation Board slapping the Canadian National Railroad with a $250,000 fine for violating obligations governing the railroad’s Chicago area operations. Those legally-binding commitments were “similar” to the promises made by CSX, City Hall contends.