Apr 28, 2023 - Economy

Long trains stopped at crossings are forcing school kids into danger, ProPublica finds

A girl crawls under the train with her backpack. Credit: Gray Television/InvestigateTV

Long freight trains are blocking traffic crossings around the country, forcing school children to risk their lives to get to school, a new ProPublica investigation finds.

The big picture: There's a heightened focus on the safety risks around rail operators now, in the wake of the derailment earlier this year in East Palestine, Ohio.

What's happening: ProPublica and InvestigateTV witnessed "dozens" of children crawl under and between train cars in Hammond, Indiana — where Norfolk Southern trains frequently block traffic.

  • The report didn't name other rail companies but noted there were more than 28,000 reports of blocked crossings to federal regulators in the last year alone.

Zoom out: The issue has simmered for a while, and worsened in recent years as trains have gotten longer — some are two or more miles long — and railroad operators faced labor shortages during the COVID crisis, which meant trains had to stop and wait for staffing to become available.

  • Over the last four years, lawmakers in Arkansas, Kansas, Georgia, Virginia, and other states have tried and failed to restrict train length.

Between the lines: Norfolk Southern executives talked quite a bit about safety on the company's Q1 earnings call with investors Wednesday morning before the ProPublica investigation was published — but the issue of long trains and blocked crossings didn't come up.

  • In its earnings report, the company estimates the derailment in February will cost it $387 million.

What they're saying: “Nobody 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,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told ProPublica.

  • "It is never safe for members of the public to try to cross the cars,” Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker told the news outlet. “We understand that a stopped train is frustrating, but trains can move at any time and with little warning." (The company's full response.)

What's next: There's a possibility the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a petition from Ohio; the state is seeking the ability to regulate the amount of time a train can block a crossing.

Read ProPublica's full investigation.

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