City officials were expecting a flood of public interest in the possible closing of an oft-used railroad crossing situated in the heart of Somerset, but they got little more than a trickle during this week’s public hearing on the matter.
“I wish we’d had more people here from the neighborhood because they’re likely to be most affected,” said Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler during Wednesday’s public hearing, held to garner comments from the public about the possible closing of the West Columbia Street railroad crossing.
Four community members, along with six city council members, were on hand Wednesday to hear comments from Norfolk Southern Railway representatives about the crossing — considered one of the most dangerous on Norfolk Southern’s 20,000-mile railway system.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen, it’s going to happen, but hopefully we can do some things to avoid it,” said Girdler.
William Miller, manager of grade crossing safety for Norfolk Southern, and Vince Means, a supervisor with the company who is based in Somerset, emphatically said that the sheer number of reported tractor trailers getting hung up on the crossing in the past two years — eight in all, not including an incident on Monday — has proven that the crossing needs to be closed.
“I think we’ve been very fortunate ... we’re running 41 trains a day over Columbia Street crossing on average,” Miller said. “There will come a time if we don’t close the crossing that something very bad could happen.”
Means later said that the Columbia Street crossing could see as many as 50 to 60 trains on a busy day.
The eight reported truck hang-ups at that crossing comes from the number of times the incidents have been reported through the railway’s information number. Girdler said he’s been told by witnesses, especially those who work at the businesses located just below the crossing, that the number is easily at 20-25 within a six-month period.
“I’d say it’s a miracle by this point that no one’s been killed in the last couple of years,” Miller said.
A stuck tractor trailer results in 911 dispatcher reporting the incident to Norfolk Southern, which alerts its conductors of the situation. So far, trains have been able to stop in time to avoid a collision, but Monday, a train came within just a few hundred feet of the crossing.
And what could happen in the case of a collision is what has city officials and Norfolk Southern especially worried.
Miller said it’s nearly impossible to predict whether a derailment would occur in the event of a collision because several factors play into that. He did say a heavily-loaded tractor trailer combined with a train traveling at speed could no doubt set the scene for a possible derailment.
And that could result in loss of life and even an evacuation of the surrounding area and the closure of nearby U.S. 27, depending on what the train is carrying.
“We’re asking to close the crossing permanently,” Miller said.
Councilors did have reservations about how the closure would affect foot traffic in the area. Many residents in the West Columbia Street area walk across the tracks at the crossing to access the stores and restaurants on U.S. 27.
Miller said a pedestrian crossing would be feasible.
“I wouldn’t have any reservations leaving that as an at-grade pedestrian walkway,” Miller said.
Of course, pedestrians would have to watch for trains closely, as the crossing’s signals wouldn’t be at the crossing should vehicle traffic be shut down. Miller did say the train conductors would blow their horns as warning if the crosswalk was placed there.
Miller said that a Department of Transportation traffic study on the crossing from 1994 stated that an average of 700 vehicles cross the track there daily. That number, Miller said, is no doubt a low one since Somerset has grown in the 18 years since the study was done.
“Every time that I’ve been in Somerset that I’d go out to the crossing there’s at least one or two vehicles going over the crossing,” Miller said. “I think 700 may have been accurate in 1994 but Somerset grown a lot since 1994.”
Citizens at Wednesday’s meetings seemed mostly in support of the closing, but they did have questions about alternatives to the closing, such as placing larger signs alerting truck drivers to the crossing, and placing those signs farther away from the actual crossing to make it easier for truck drivers to turn around.
“It seems like all the common sense measures have already taken place, and it’s not working,” Miller said.
Warning signs are already in place near the crossing, yet out-of-town truck drivers are often led to the crossing by their GPS systems.
Both Girdler and Miller said engineering solutions, such as an overpass, are made too costly due to the steep grade of the crossing.
“We’d love to come up with some kind of engineering solution to keep cars going across right there and trains moving and keep them from coming in contact with each other, but the way that hill is and the way the tracks are right there, there’s not a simple engineering solution,” Miller said. “We feel the best thing to do is to close the crossing permanently.”
In the face of such a small public turnout, some discussion took place about temporarily closing the crossing as a way to gauge public reaction.
No matter what happens, Girdler said the public will be given a head’s up on the situation.
“Whatever we do, we need to give adequate notice to the public,” said Girdler.
Councilor Jerry Wheeldon said he spoke to several residents in the West Columbia Street area about the closing and that they seemed mostly in favor of closing the crossing to vehicles.
The ultimate decision lies with Somerset City Council, which will no doubt discuss the situation in an upcoming meeting. A tentative closing date on the crossing was set for November, but Girdler said that hinges on how things progress.
“It would be a minor inconvenience to me, but so often we wait until people are killed before a situation is made better ... and I think in this case it would be commendable to prevent loss of life by closing it before people are killed,” said citizen Peggy True.