STB scolds CSX for delaying traffic at grade crossings near Chicago

Surface Transportation Board vice chair then turns the tables, criticizing slow agency work on the issue
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal regulators have taken CSX Transportation to task for failing to live up to assurances it would not block grade crossings on a Chicago area line it began operating three years ago.

The Surface Transportation Board on Wednesday ordered CSX keep trains moving on the Elsdon Line — or explain why it is unable to do so. It also is requiring CSX to file monthly reports for a year, detailing grade-crossing blockages, and steps it is taking to cooperate with other railroads to ensure smooth operations.

In 2013, CSX gained control of the 22-mile route from Canadian National, which no longer needed the line due to its acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern as a belt route around Chicago.

The transaction doubled traffic over the line, from 10 trains per day to about 20, as CSX shifted trains off of portions of four routes in the Chicago Terminal: the Indiana Harbor Belt’s Franklin Park Branch, the Belt Railway of Chicago east of Clearing Yard, the Union Pacific Villa Grove Subdivision north of Dolton, and a portion of the CSX-UP Joint Line.

CSX says that it has complied with all conditions the STB imposed as part of the transaction and that it has significantly reduced blocked crossing incidents.

“We appreciate that we still have work to do and, in furtherance of yesterday’s STB decision, we will continue to build on the better performance we have already seen in 2016,” CSX spokeswoman Gail Lobin says.

Communities along the line have complained about lengthy grade-crossing blockages and trains idling on the route since CSX took over. The STB has met with officials from CSX and affected communities several times over the past three years in an effort to iron out problems.

In February, Chicago and Evergreen Park, Ill., asked the board to reopen the case. The STB agreed this week and said CSX needs to meet expectations.

“The Board has allowed CSXT more than enough time to address the many problems that have arisen on the Line since the application was approved three years ago. We must hold CSXT accountable to the representations it made in its application that the Board relied on in approving the application,” the STB said in its decision, released on Wednesday.

In its application to control the line, CSX pledged that it would not operate trains over the Elsdon Line unless the route was clear and receiving railroads could accept trains without delay.

“If operations on the Elsdon Line resembled the practices to which CSXT committed in its application, trains should rarely idle on the Line, if ever. The current record, however, does not bear out that expectation,” the board wrote in its decision.

CSX says the majority of grade-crossing delays have been caused by interference at Ashburn, where the line crosses a Norfolk Southern line that is also used by Metra.

“Track availability can change minute to minute, especially in the most congested railroad location in the United States – Chicago,” CSX wrote in a March filing to the STB. “Even when CSXT receives a clear signal for trains moving toward Ashburn, due to events on the NS line at Ashburn, CSXT is sometimes required to stop trains in Evergreen Park.”

CSX says it is working with other railroads to develop protocols to minimize interference on the line.

The STB was critical of CSX’s progress.

“It is unclear from the record when these discussions began, but CSXT should have been talking with the other carriers to develop protocols immediately after the transaction was approved, if not sooner,” the STB wrote.

CSX’s monthly reports to the STB must include the status of operating protocols with NS, Metra, Indiana Harbor Belt, and any other railroad whose operations could cause delays on the Elsdon Line.

CSX, which said it inherited grade crossing signal problems, has spent more than $12 million to upgrade signals and grade crossings on the route, including installing a video system that allows dispatchers to monitor all crossings in Evergreen Park in real time.

From September to November 2015, about 10 percent of 601 trains on the line moved slowly enough to trigger crossing gate activations of between 10 and 20 minutes, according to a CSX filing. Nearly 3 percent of trains produced gate activations of 20 minutes or more, typically from stopping en route, CSX said.

In the following three months, CSX cut the number of crossing blockage delays in half.

“CSX is not yet fully satisfied with the number of grade crossing delays on the line,” the railroad said in its March filing. “But the fact that the total number of delays on the line has been nearly cut in half on a quarter-to-quarter basis shows that CSXT is making significant progress.”

STB Vice Chairman Deb Miller was critical of her own agency for moving too slowly in this case.

“While I am satisfied with the decision that the Board has reached today, the decision also is an example of why I believe the agency needs to re-examine its processes, with a focus on issuing more timely decisions,” she wrote. “Given the seriousness of the issues raised in the petition, the board made this proceeding one of its top priorities, but even still, it took the agency months to issue a ruling.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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