Commonwealth Journal

November 10, 2012

West Columbia Street crossing won’t be closed for at least a month

By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

Those who often travel over West Columbia Street railroad crossing still have a little more than a month to make alternate travel plans before the crossing is permanently closed.
“We don’t have a date yet for the closing,” said Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler. 
While Girdler said the city hopes to have the crossing closed soon after the new year, he said nothing is set in stone.
Girdler also said the crossing equipment — which has received some repair service recently — cannot be removed until a date is set for the closing. 
The closing is closer to becoming reality after city officials, citing safety issues with he crossing, held a public meeting in September that garnered little feedback from the public. 
The crossing is 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,” Girdler has said in the past about the crossing. 
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 during the public meeting that the sheer number of reported tractor trailers getting hung up on the crossing in the past two years 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. 
Girdler has 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.
What could happen in the case of a collision is what has city officials and Norfolk Southern especially worried, and Girdler said those fears are compounded after a derailment in Jefferson County recently resulted in the evacuation of hundreds of residents in that area for several days.
“It’s a serious problem that we’re dealing with,” Girdler said. 
City officials and Norfolk Southern have discussed keeping a pedestrian crosswalk open on the crossing, since many people in the area make the trek by foot to businesses located on U.S. 27. 
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.
Girdler said that area — U.S. 27 and those residences around the railroad — would be negatively impacted in the event of a collision or derailment. 
“Due to the dangerous situation and the jobs involved and U.S. 27 ... we would have to shut down everything (if a train derailed),” Girdler said. 
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 said during the public meeting 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.
Councilor Jerry Wheeldon said during the meeting 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. Girdler said on Friday that he hadn’t heard any negative feedback on the closing.