NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- Your ride around town is smooth as silk... and then, you see it up ahead.
The lights flash, the arms go down, and traffic comes to a halt. With no way to turn around, you throw the car in park and stretch your neck to see just how far back this freight train really goes... but there's no end in sight. Then, after a few minutes of twiddling your thumbs, it happens: the train stops moving, right in front of you. And there's no way of telling how long the road will be blocked.
Yes, that freight train is busy at work transporting goods, but the blockage is still inconvenient.
13News Now viewer Kathy Orebaugh emailed us and said she has noticed a steady increase in the frequency of Norfolk Southern freight trains passing through the Wards Corner area of Norfolk, where she's lived for 40 years. She also said she noticed those trains seem to be getting longer and slower, sometimes coming to a complete stop on the tracks.
Kathy tells us that on more than one occasion in March, she encountered trains stopped on the tracks and has been delayed up to 25 to 30 minutes.
So, she wants to know if there are mandates on the maximum length of freight trains allowed to pass through city limits and if there's a legal time limit that train may block a crossing.
To address the question of trains blocking the road, we reached out to 13News Now legal analyst Ed Booth, who cited Chapter 13 of the Virginia Code of Law on Railroad Corporations, section 56-412.1.
It states, in part, "It shall be unlawful for any railroad company, or any receiver or trustee operating a railroad, to obstruct for a longer period than five minutes the free passage on any street or road by standing cars or trains across the same."
The rule goes on to say that these companies could face up to $500 per violation. However, the law does not apply to trains stopped due to "breakdown, mechanical failure or emergency."
"Well, it's pretty straight-forward," Booth says. "Freight trains aren't supposed to stop and block intersections. The law on the books says that unless there's a mechanical failure or some other emergency, trains are supposed to pass on through the intersection and not stop. Now that isn't always what happens, but that's what the law says."
So, who enforces this rule? We spoke with Ken Schrad, the Director of the Division of Information Resources at the State Corporation Commission. In an email he tells us, "Yes, the SCC's Division of Utility & Railroad Safety can review instances in which a train is blocking a crossing. The division will receive complaints and review the facts associated with the complaint."
However, he also points out that "the train must be completely stopped with insufficient cause" and "any movement that begins within five minutes of stoppage is not considered 'blocking.'"
Norfolk Southern Public Relations Director Susan Terpay explains why trains may have to block a crossing. In an email, she says freight trains can be as long as a mile-and-a-half, but crossings are often spaced closer together than that. And if a train needs to stop for a valid reason, this can result in a blocked crossing.
However, she also says Norfolk Southern tries not to "block road crossings and to comply with state and local laws regarding the amount of time that trains block road crossings."
She also tells us that, "railroads are regulated by the federal government (Federal Railroad Administration), and while we realize states sometimes want to regulate in this area, federal law preempts state and local laws."
Desiree French, Public Affairs Specialist with the Federal Railroad Administration, confirms this. In an email, she says, "Currently, there is no Federal regulation on the amount of time an idle train may block a public highway-rail grade crossing, although states and localities are not precluded from enacting and enforcing their own applicable laws. Some courts, however, have found state blocked crossing laws and regulations to be preempted by federal requirements because... compliance with the state law negatively affects the railroad's ability to comply with Federal regulations."
French also tells us that the FRA has general authority to exercise jurisdiction over every area of railroad safety. And when blockages are widespread or recurring, the FRA is willing to work with local officials, railroads, and communities to resolve the issues.
So, we can VERIFY that Norfolk Southern freight trains can be up to 1.5 miles long, and there is a state law against trains blocking the road for longer than five minutes.
However, the rule only applies if the train has insufficient cause to block a crossing, and state law can be preempted by federal regulations.
If you encounter a crossing blocked by a train and feel it is in violation of state and/or federal regulations or stopped with insufficient cause, you can file a complaint with the SCC by calling 804-371-9980, toll-free within Virginia at 1-800-552-7945, or mailing the SCC's Division of Utility and Railroad Safety at P.O. Box 1197, Richmond, VA 23218.
You can also file a complaint with the FRA at https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0001. Click on the 'File An Alleged Violation" tab under the "How Do I...?" section. The FRA's regional offices will also take your call. You can find that number by clicking "Contact The Right Office?" under the same section. On the "Contact Us" page, click on "Regional Safety Offices" in the right column.
Norfolk Southern also takes complaints. Contact their Police Communications Center at 1-800-453-2530.