As rail profits soar, blocked crossings force kids to crawl under trains to get to school
InvestigateTV partnered with ProPublica for this story. To see new developments since reporting began, click here.
HAMMOND, Ind. (ProPublica/InvestigateTV) — Jeremiah Johnson couldn’t convince his mother to let him wear a suit, so he insisted on wearing his striped tie and matching pocket square. It was picture day and the third grader wanted to get to school on time. But as he and his mom walked from their Hammond, Indiana, home on a cold, rainy fall morning, they confronted an obstacle they’d come to dread:
A sprawling train, parked in their path.
Lamira Samson, Jeremiah’s mother, faced a choice she said she has to make several times a week. They could walk around the train, perhaps a mile out of the way; she could keep her 8-year-old son home, as she sometimes does; or they could try to climb over the train, risking severe injury or death, to reach Hess Elementary School four blocks away.
She listened for the hum of an engine. Hearing none, she hurried to help Jeremiah climb a ladder onto the flat platform of a train car. Once up herself, she helped him scramble down the other side.
ProPublica and InvestigateTV witnessed dozens of students do the same in Hammond, climbing over, squeezing between and crawling under train cars with “Frozen” and “Space Jam” backpacks. An eighth grade girl waited 10 minutes before she made her move, nervously scrutinizing the gap between two cars. She’d seen plenty of trains start without warning. “I don’t want to get crushed,” she said.
Recent spectacular derailments have focused attention on train safety and whether the nation’s powerful rail companies are doing enough to protect the public — and whether federal regulators are doing enough to make them, especially as the companies build longer and longer trains.
But communities like Hammond routinely face a different set of risks foisted on them by those same train companies, which have long acted with impunity. Every day across America, their trains park in the middle of neighborhoods and major intersections, waiting to enter congested rail yards or for one crew to switch with another. They block crossings, sometimes for hours or days, disrupting life and endangering lives.
News accounts chronicle horror stories: Ambulances can’t reach patients before they die or get them to the hospital in time. Fire trucks can’t get through and house fires blaze out of control. Pedestrians trying to cut through trains have been disfigured, dismembered and killed; when one train abruptly began moving, an Iowa woman was dragged underneath until it stripped almost all of the skin from the back of her body; a Pennsylvania teenager lost her leg hopping between rail cars as she rushed home to get ready for prom.
In Hammond, the hulking trains of Norfolk Southern regularly force parents, kids and caretakers into an exhausting gamble: How much should they risk to get to school?
The trains, which can stretch across five or six intersections at a time in this working-class suburb of 77,000, prevent students and teachers from getting to school in the morning. Teachers must watch multiple classrooms while their colleagues wait at crossings; kids sit on school buses as they meander the streets of an entirely different city to be dropped off a half-hour late. Brandi Odom, a seventh grade teacher, estimates that at least half her class is delayed by trains multiple times a week.
The adults entrusted with their safety — parents and teachers, police and fire officials, the mayor — say they are well aware of the pressures on students’ minds when they face a blocked crossing on foot. They know some are hungry and don’t want to miss breakfast; the vast majority in this 86% Black and Latino district qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. And they know that many of their parents commute to work an hour away to Chicago, trusting older brothers or sisters to pick up or drop off their siblings.
“I feel awful about it,” said Scott E. Miller, the superintendent. His district has asked Norfolk Southern for its schedule so that the schools can plan for blockages and students can adjust their routines. The company has disregarded the requests, school officials said.
Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said that his experience with the rails has been similar, and that company officials have reminded him the rails “were here first,” running through Hammond before it was even a city. “To them, I am nobody,” he said. “They don’t pay attention to me. They don’t respect me. They don’t care about the city of Hammond. They just do what they want.”
In written responses to questions, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said children climbing through their trains concerns the company.
“It is never safe for members of the public to try to cross the cars,” spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said. “We understand that a stopped train is frustrating, but trains can move at any time and with little warning — especially if you are far from the locomotive where the warning bell is sounded when a train starts.”
He said trains routinely sit in Hammond for a number of reasons: That section of track is between two busy train intersections that must remain open; Norfolk Southern can’t easily move a train backward or forward, because that would cut off the paths for other trains, which could belong to other companies. And Hammond is a suburb of Chicago, which is the busiest train hub in the nation, creating congestion up and down the network.
He said Norfolk Southern is working to identify an area where trains can stage further down its line and to have less impact on the community. The company will also review its procedures to see whether its trains can give louder warnings before they start moving. (ProPublica reporters witnessed trains in Hammond start moving without warning.) Spielmaker said that train schedules vary so much that giving Hammond one might not be helpful. He said that the company is in “constant communication” with local officials, and that representatives will discuss any proposed fixes with Hammond.
Rail companies around the country could better coordinate their schedules, parking trains far from schools that are in session. They could also build shorter trains that fit into railyards so their tail ends don’t block towns’ crossings. Hammond essentially serves as a parking lot for Norfolk Southern’s trains, creating a problem so pressing that Indiana plans to spend $14 million — about $10 million of which is coming from federal grants — to build an overpass for cars. The bridge won’t help many students, who would need to walk at least a mile out of their way just to reach it. Norfolk Southern, the multibillion-dollar corporation causing the problem, is contributing just $500,000 of the bridge’s cost, despite the city asking for more.
Norfolk Southern did not respond directly to questions about whether it should chip in more to the upcoming project, but the company said it contributes to many safety projects and maintains more than 1,600 grade crossings in Indiana alone. Read the company’s full response here, or at the bottom of this story.
On three separate occasions during the fall and winter, reporters witnessed Norfolk Southern trains blocking intersections leading to an elementary, a middle and a high school for four, six and seven hours. ProPublica and InvestigateTV showed footage of kids making the crossing, including an elementary student crawling under a train, to representatives of Norfolk Southern, lawmakers and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, whose remit includes rail safety.
He was shocked.
“Nobody,” Buttigieg said, “can look at a video with a child having to climb over or under a railroad car to get to school and think that everything is OK.”
The video also stunned state officials who had long known about the problem. “That takes my breath away,” said Indiana state Rep. Carolyn Jackson, who represents the Hammond area and has filed a bill attempting to address blocked crossings every session for the past five years. None has ever gotten a hearing. “I hope that they will do something about it and we won’t have to wait until a parent has to bury their child.”
The blocked crossing problem is perennial, especially in cities like Hammond that are near large train yards. But in the era of precision scheduled railroading, a management philosophy that leans heavily on running longer trains, residents, first responders, rail workers and government leaders told ProPublica it is getting worse as trains stretch farther across more intersections and crossings. “The length of the long trains is 100% the cause of what’s going on across the country right now,” said Randy Fannon, national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “No engineer wants to block a crossing.”
The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that regulates rail safety, started a public database in late 2019 for complaints about blocked crossings and fielded more than 28,000 reports of stopped trains last year alone. Among them were thousands of dispatches from 44 states about pedestrians, including kids, crossing trains. Someone in North Charleston, South Carolina, summarized the situation in three letters: “Wtf.”
A rail administration spokesperson said the agency shares the data monthly with companies.
“When railroads fail to act quickly,” and if a crossing is reported as blocked three days in a calendar month, officials will contact a company to determine the cause and try to work out solutions, Warren Flatau said. “We are receiving various levels of cooperation … and welcome more consistent engagement.” Read more about what the agency says it is doing here.
Buttigieg said that this spring or summer, he expects to announce the first grants in a new U.S. Department of Transportation program designed to help alleviate blocked crossings. The federal government is putting $3 billion into the program over five years.
State lawmakers have tried to curb blocked crossings by restricting the lengths of trains. Since 2019, in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington, Arizona and other states, lawmakers have proposed maximum lengths of 1.4 to about 1.6 miles. (There is no limit now, and trains have been known to stretch for 2 or more miles.) Every proposal has died before becoming law.
Opponents, including the nation’s largest railroad companies, claim that the efforts are driven by unions to create jobs and that the measures would violate interstate commerce laws. As ProPublica has reported, train length has been essential to creating record profits for rail companies in recent years.
The industry has also sued to block more modest measures. In Hammond, for instance, police used to be able to write tickets for about $150 every time they saw a train stalled at a crossing for more than five minutes. Instead of paying the individual citations, Hammond officials told ProPublica, Norfolk Southern would bundle them and negotiate a lower payment.
“We weren’t getting anything,” McDermott, the mayor, said, “but it made our residents feel good.” An Indiana court took the industry’s side — as many courts in other states have done — ruling that only the federal government held power over the rails. “We can’t even write tickets anymore,” the mayor said. “It was more of an illusion, and we can’t even play the illusion anymore.”
He said the blockages have forced Hammond to keep more firefighters and stations than would normally be needed for a city its size. “I have to have a firehouse fully staffed on both sides of the rail line so that we can respond in a timely manner to an emergency, which is very expensive,” McDermott said.
The problem has become so endemic in Hammond that getting “trained,” or stalled at crossings, has become a verb.
Police officers are delayed several times a day, said Hammond Police Department spokesperson Lt. Steve Kellogg. Last October, an officer couldn’t get backup as he confronted a man who was holding a knife, bleeding and not responding to commands. The officer pulled his weapon and the man ultimately cooperated, but someone could have died, Kellogg said. Hammond’s powerlessness over the rails is frustrating, he added. “They’re all controlled by the feds, and they do whatever the hell they want to do.”
Spielmaker, the Norfolk Southern spokesperson, said: “We work with first responders on a daily basis to assist however we can. For example, there was a situation in Georgia where a train was stopped on a crossing due to a broken down train ahead. The train could not be moved, so we worked with the first responders to make sure the train was safe for them to maneuver through with it in place.”
In his 24 years fighting fires in Hammond, Mike Hull, president of a local union, said not once has he seen railroads do that for first responders. “They’ve never come back and said, ‘We’re going to move this train for you,’” he said.
State and local officials grew hopeful on March 20 when the U.S. Supreme Court invited the federal government to comment on a petition from Ohio seeking the authority to regulate how long a train can block a crossing. The high court will likely hear the case if the solicitor general recommends it, said Tom Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog, which is widely seen as an authority on the court. Nineteen other states have signaled their support for a Supreme Court case. Goldstein expects the solicitor general to respond in November or early December. A favorable court opinion could allow other states to finally enforce their laws on blocked crossings.
In the meantime, Buttigieg believes federal lawmakers must intervene to give the Federal Railroad Administration the power to compel rail companies to keep crossings clear. This time of intense public interest in railroads has opened a window for action, Buttigieg said, but it is fleeting. “Any moment that the public attention starts to fade, the railroads are then once again in a position to assert themselves in Washington and to ignore some of the phone calls they are getting in the communities,” he said.
Buttigieg said his staff is ready to participate in a federal hearing in which it can tell lawmakers what new authorities they would need to regulate blocked crossings.
U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, said she is eager for new law. A fire chief in her district, which covers parts of the Houston area, told her the department has had to detour 3,200 times since 2019 because of blocked crossings. She and other congressional Democrats introduced the Don’t Block Our Communities Act in early March, but it has not yet gained bipartisan traction. The proposed law would prohibit rail companies from blocking crossings for more than 10 minutes and would allow the rail administration to fine companies for repeated violations.
Like the other officials, Garcia said she was aghast, but not surprised, about the situation in Hammond. “That is outrageous, look at the little bitty baby,” she said while watching a video of a young girl crawling under a train car. “That’s what I mean about making sure we do more to protect the safety of our children. That happens too in Houston.”
In Hammond, a public meeting was held on April 26 at Scott Middle School to discuss the overpass project. InvestigateTV and ProPublica were at the meeting hosted by the Indiana Department of Transportation that drew a crowd of about 150 people.
Among those who voice their concerns about the blocked crossings were rail workers themselves who worry about the kids.
“It’s just a matter of time until there is a catastrophic incident,” said Kenny Edwards, the Indiana legislative director for the nation’s largest rail union, prior to the meeting. Edwards’ comments at the meeting calling for shorter trains drew applause.
Efrain Valdez, president of the parent teacher association, said he hopes officials can adjust plans to help students who need to walk to school. “To see our children in danger like that, that’s just downright crazy,” he said. “I’m just appalled and heartbroken that [the railroad] would think that’s OK. That their money means more to them than a child’s life.”
Until there’s a better solution, the ritual continues. Some parents act as de facto crossing guards, standing beside trains to help their children and others cross. Others ask their kids to call them before and after they make the climb, while warning them about the worst that can happen.
Rudy Costello tells his daughter, who is in high school, to be careful, because if the train moves she “could slip and then there goes your leg and your foot. Or you get pulled under the train and there goes you all together.” He added: “That’s been my biggest fear, her foot slipping off. … But what can you do? Because those trains are always stopping over there, for hours.”
Akicia Henderson said she has tried to avoid making the dangerous climb with her 10-year-old daughter. “I called a Lyft,” she said. “The Lyft driver actually canceled on me twice because he couldn’t get around the train.”
So she walks toward the tracks, picturing all that can go wrong — a jacket snags, a backpack tangles, the wheels begin to turn. She prays that this will be one of the days their path isn’t blocked and that she doesn’t hear the sound she has most come to fear, a horn in the distance.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, the train is coming.’”
Ruth Baron and Gabriel Sandoval contributed research.
This story originally misstated the title of Randy Fannon. He is a national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, not its general chairman. We regret the error.
Full Statement from Norfolk Southern
Every day, we work hard to keep our trains moving safely and efficiently to deliver the goods that power the U.S. economy and be a good neighbor in the communities we operate in and live in. The railroad is one of the foundations of growth in the United States, and we have seen huge development around our tracks – including many businesses that create jobs. Over time, as localities grew, they began installing roads across the tracks. Especially in more densely populated areas, this can make it difficult to operate the railroad without having some impact on those crossings. Solutions, especially in large rail hubs like the Chicago area, are frequently complex. Our role in that process is to build partnerships with these communities and identify permanent solutions such as overpasses and crossing closures where it makes sense. That includes contributing company funds and partnering with communities to apply for infrastructure funds.
Chicago is the nation’s busiest rail hub and managing all of the traffic coming into and out of the city across all of the railroads is extremely complex. In Hammond, there are two factors driving the issue at Grand Ave. First, many trains are heading to Norfolk Southern facilities in Chicago. We are actively working to identify an area where those trains can stage further down our line and have less impact on the community.
Second, the crossing is located between two intersections with other railroads, and we require permission to proceed onto or through their tracks safely. Here, we are not the sole decisionmaker. While we cannot unilaterally make an operational change on this front, we will remain engaged with the Hammond community. In fact, we are working together on a traffic overpass project that we’ve partially funded and advocated for.
Questions supplied by InvestigateTV/ProPublica and responses from Norfolk Southern provided by email
Q: Why, generally, are Norfolk Southern railroad operators blocking crossings in some communities? Can you elaborate on the industry-related factors that might necessitate the stoppage of these trains in areas where crossings end up blocked?
A: To get to the crux of the issue, you first have to zoom out and look broadly at the railroad. Trains have operated on these fixed tracks for hundreds of years. Trains require space to operate, adequate spacing between them to remain safe, and also have specific points on the track that are essentially the traffic lights of the railroad. Beyond those infrastructure restrictions, there are other elements too. Train crews, like airline pilots or truck drivers, can only operate for so many hours at a time. Trains could also suffer a mechanical issue, or there could be a power outage affecting the signals on a particular section of track. In a vacuum, these are only issues for the railroad to deal with. However, over time, communities have developed along those same railroad tracks, adding a new factor to those stretches of tracks: crossings. The height of these issues came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most of the country was affected by labor shortages, including the railroads. This had a severe impact on our railroad, and our ability to keep trains moving suffered, resulting in stopped trains more frequently. As service recovered, these issues resolved in some places, and reduced at others where the issue is more acute longer-term. There are many reasons why a train may need to stop, but the main reasons a member of the public would see a stopped train are crew changes, train meets, or congestion. When a crew times out, the train has to be “tied-down” or parked while a relief crew is dispatched. Trains are tied-down in sidings, or otherwise out of the way of other trains that need to pass. Frequently, when we see recurring crossing issues, it’s because a community constructed a crossing within a siding – quite literally a place designed for trains to park. Sometimes, the relief crew can be delayed, resulting in a longer stop. Those sidings are also where trains ‘meet,’ which is when two trains are headed in opposite directions on the same tracks. To pass, one of them has to pull into a siding and stop while the other passes. In some cases, more than one train needs to pass, resulting in a longer delay. Congestion can also mean trains need to stage, especially in high-traffic areas like Chicago. In fact, Hammond is located between two intersections of other railroads, and traffic is carefully managed and permission must be granted to proceed onto or through these tracks. Any one of these things can be exacerbated by another issue happening simultaneously down the line.
Q: Is there a specific reason these blockages by NS trains might last several hours as our team witnessed in Hammond, Indiana, or even in some cases as long as a week or more as our affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, reported previously? Is the impact to communities a factor in decisions made about where/when your cars are stopped?
A: In Hammond, trains have to stop between two railroad intersections called diamonds and wait for approval to proceed either through – or proceed onto one of those other railroads. Many times, we are awaiting permission to proceed. In Alabama, both sides of our yard is single-track. Meaning one train in, and one train out. This means trains have to hold in sidings until room is available inside the yard. The extended delay mentioned occurred once during the pandemic when we had a severe service issue. It’s important to note that the crossing that was blocked in that case has an overpass just around the corner that is always available.
Q: Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott told ProPublica that when he has spoken with either Norfolk Southern or another Class 1 railroad with a presence in Hammond, he’s told the following: “They say we were here first, and [that’s] legitimately true; they were here first, and they said you built a city around our rail line, and you shouldn’t have built the city around our rail line. But Hammond is a city of 79,000 people that are being unduly impacted by the freight operation. And I think there’s a balance there that needs to be weighed.”
A: Communities like Hammond are not just towns we operate in, but our employees live in them too. Our goal is to keep our trains moving and minimize these types of events whenever possible. Where more acute issues exist, like Hammond, we partner closely to identify those long-term projects.
Q: McDermott also said the following more generally about railroads: “When you’re talking to a train operator, it’s not much different than talking to a federal official, because the only people that trump the trains are the federal officials,” he said. “They could be dismissive of state officials, and they could certainly dismiss a mayor. So to them, I am nobody; I’m just an obstacle trying to screw them up. So they don’t pay attention to me. They don’t respect me. They don’t care about the city of Hammond. They just do what they want.”
A: For Norfolk Southern, we are in constant communication with Mayor McDermott and others locally, including the city engineer.
Q: The proposed grade separation project in the Hessville area is estimated to cost $14 million. NS is supporting the project with $500,000. The City of Hammond has asked NS to commit more money to the project, but NS has refused. Should railroads pay for solutions such as grade separation projects and other potential solutions?
A: Norfolk Southern contributes financially to many projects and safety initiatives for the benefit of drivers and pedestrians – such as maintenance of warning devices at grade crossings and pavement within grade crossings. In fact, we maintain more than 1,600 grade crossings in Indiana alone.
Q: FRA data shows the number of blockages reported to the agency continues to climb. Given the potential for harm, why does this situation continue to happen, and appear to be increasing in frequency? How can Norfolk Southern, an industry leader, help stop the trend?
A: We defer to AAR on an industry response.
Q: What is the perspective of Norfolk Southern when it comes to the impact on emergency response that may result because of a blocked crossing? Do you instruct operators to move if emergency responders approach a blocked crossing, why or why not?
A: Our Police Communications Center is staffed 24/7/365 and is available in an emergency. We work with first responders on a daily basis to assist however we can. For example, there was a situation in Georgia where a train was stopped on a crossing due to a broken down train ahead. The train could not be moved, so we worked with the first responders to make sure the train was safe for them to maneuver through with it in place.
Q: Your company is listed in the Top 3 according to the FRA when it comes to blocked crossing incidents – with nearly 4,500 since 2019. Is that an acceptable number to the company? What steps is the company specifically taking to minimize blocked crossings?
A: Our priority is to keep our railroad running safely and efficiently, which helps to minimize these occurrences.
Q: From safety advocates to lawmakers, there are some who believe the railroad industry knows it has the power in these scenarios and they’ve told us they believe companies, including Norfolk Southern, are essentially thumbing their noses at the problem by continuing to block crossings despite being informed about the issues it can cause. How do you respond to that?
A: We remain closely engaged with communities to identify recurring issues and work with them to formulate long-term solutions.
Q: What does NS think about the proposed legislation from Congresswoman Garcia that would prohibit operators from blocking crossings for longer than 10 minutes and give the FRA the authority to issue fines to repeat offenders? Does NS think a 10-minute limit is reasonable?
A: We cannot comment on specific legislation but remained engaged with localities to find solutions for their unique circumstances.
Q: What are your thoughts that Garcia says operators need to be more responsible and more responsive to blocked crossing? And to the notion that to get rail operators to pay attention to this problem, they have to essentially hit you in the wallet?
A: We cannot comment on specific legislation, but remained engaged with localities to find solutions for their unique circumstances.
Q: Secretary Buttigieg, in our conversation, said now is the time to give the FRA authority to regulate blocked crossings, and he’s supportive of legislation. What is Norfolk Southern’s position on regulation by the FRA?
A: We cannot comment on specific legislation, but remained engaged with localities to find solutions for their unique circumstances.
Q: As a result of crossings blocked in Hammond, Indiana, our teams have captured video and photos of children and adults climbing trains – going both under and over cars that have been stopped for hours because we’re told they essentially have no other option to get to school or back home (lack of transportation, a great distance to the end of the train that makes walking around it unfeasible, lengthy span of time the crossing is blocked). How does Norfolk Southern react to children and adults, climbing under or over your rail cars (Photos attached)? Are you concerned?
A: Yes, we share the concerns of the community - climbing on or through trains is very dangerous. It is never safe for the public to approach a train, stopped or moving. We partner with Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit dedicated to railroad safely, to support safety initiatives across the country that educate the public of the dangers of being unsafe near the rails. Beyond education, the best thing we can do is work with local governments to solve the infrastructure problems created by growth around railroad tracks.
Q: How do you react to the characterization that crossings blocked by Norfolk Southern are a “tragedy waiting to happen”?
A: same as above.
Q: Do you track when your trains block railroad crossings?
A: It is our goal to minimize blocked crossings as much as possible. We also rely on our Police Dispatch Center to identify instances of particular concern.
Q: Veteran railroaders have told us that longer trains exacerbate blocked crossings – from NS’s view, is that true?
A: Longer trains help to reduce the overall number of trains operating on the railroad, which also means less trains that could have to stop. Shorter trains would not necessarily alleviate blocked crossing issues. For example, in Hammond, even trains below 7,500 feet (which ProPublica cites as ‘long trains’) would still impact this crossing.
Q: What role should railroad companies play in remedying blocked crossings?
A: Wherever there are issues, we will work with communities to identify long-term solutions.
Q: Many communities have grown and developed around train tracks that existed prior to the community, does that matter in the issue of blocked crossings? If so, how so?
A: Communities that have seen significant growth around railroad tracks can unintentionally lead to more blocked crossings. Infrastructure planning and investment is a key component to a community’s sustained and planned growth around the tracks.
Q: Officials with Hammond’s school system told ProPublica they have asked NS to provide a train schedule so they can better route their buses and anticipate blockages. NS has ignored those requests, according to school officials.
A: Train traffic can vary, and a schedule may not be the most effective solution for routing bus traffic. However, we will be sure to include this topic in our continuous discussions with the community.
Q: Many in the community spoke about their belief that the engineers and conductors stop there in order to patronize a local Subway sandwich shop. Is that true?
A: No. Trains need to stop in this location to wait for signals to traverse other tracks and navigate rail intersections.
Q: We’re aware that when crossings are blocked, there are gates that come down and lights that blink, as well as a warning bell that may ring. But is there any specific protocol for alerting the public that a Norfolk Southern train that is stopped or idling is preparing to move again – essentially warning individuals who may be attempting to cross the cars?
A: It is never safe for members of the public to try to cross the cars. We understand that a stopped train is frustrating, but trains can move at any time and with little warning – especially if you are far from the locomotive where the warning bell is sounded when a train starts. We will review procedure to see if changes can be made that could give a louder warning, and will continue this discussion with the community.
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