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Public Safety

CSX Officials Offer Limited Solutions to Idling Trains in Hunter Hills

Officials said train blockages lasting several hours are “inexcusable,” but that 15-20 minute blockages may be unavoidable right now.

Hunter Hills resident Tim Brown stands at a railroad crossing on Chappell Road near Ezra Church Drive in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood on July 3. He and other locals say trains have been blocking the street for hours at a time up until recently. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Idling trains that block streets and walkways in Atlanta’s Hunter Hills neighborhood for several hours are “inexcusable,” railroad officials from CSX Transportation told residents in a community meeting Wednesday night. But shorter blockages that have obstructed motorists, school children, and emergency vehicles may be unavoidable right now, they said.

The railroad officials said government intervention would be needed to permanently address the problem, offering limited, half-measure solutions to a decades-old issue that has gained notoriety from recent news coverage.

“I don’t want to sit here and say we’re going to fix something and [trains are] never going to block the crossing. That won’t be true,” CSX official Craig Camuso told the small crowd gathered at Hunter Hill First Missionary Baptist Church. “What we do want to focus on is these long blockages. We try to hit those as close as we can.”

Folks from the predominantly Black, west Atlanta community have been complaining for 40 years about trains blocking a railroad crossing on Chappell Road Northwest near Bernard Street, sometimes bringing nearby auto traffic to a halt for several hours.

Camuso, the company’s senior director of state relations and government affairs, was joined by two other CSX officials and Atlanta City Council member Byron Amos, who arranged the gathering. About 17 community members showed up to air their grievances and hear what the train company leaders had to say.

“We’re here to actually hear your concerns, be truthful about it, figure out what we can do together, what we can’t do together,” Amos told attendees.

Hunter Hills resident Eric Davis speaks during a meeting with CSX Transportation officials inside Hunter Hill First Missionary Baptist Church on Aug. 23. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Hunter Hills resident Eric Davis, 77, said he lives near one of three railroad crossings that CSX trains block simultaneously in the neighborhood. He wanted to know how the company handled the issue in other communities along the East Coast.

“Whatever you all did may apply to our situation as well,” Davis said.

Camuso said CSX officials have had similar meetings and circumstances throughout the company’s network. Sometimes, he said, the company’s train monitoring system doesn’t show that a railroad crossing is being blocked when, in fact, it is.

“That was something we had to fix internally with our folks to make sure that we’ve got the right length of trains in our system,” Camuso said. 

Camuso also explained why train blockages keep happening at CSX’s Chappell Road crossing. He said there’s one main CSX track near Chappell Road, and when two of the company’s trains are heading in different directions on that track, one of them has to be diverted to a side track that blocks the crossing until the other one passes.

“When one train is coming north and one train is coming south, someone has to get out of the way,” Camuso said. “Sometimes those meets happen in good timing. Sometimes those meets, for whatever reason, will be a little bit longer.”

Limited solutions

Railroads have historically served as dividing lines between Black and white communities in Georgia and throughout the country. The issue of trains blocking railroad crossings made national headlines earlier this year when ProPublica showed video of Black children climbing between and over rail cars just to get to school.

In May, a Hunter Hills resident was recorded climbing between two train cars that community leader Tim Brown said blocked Chappell Road for nearly an hour.

Folks living in Hunter Hills previously told Capital B Atlanta that wait times at the Chappell Road crossing improved in recent months after elected officials and media outlets amplified the voices of concerned residents. But community leaders say it’s still a major problem. 

The day before Wednesday’s meeting, Hunter Hills resident Deborah Wright, who lives up the street from the CSX crossing on Chappell Road, reported a train blocking the area for more than 20 minutes.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Historic Hunter Hills Neighborhood Association leader Lisa Reyes told Capital B Atlanta, regarding the timing of the train blockage.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Reyes told CSX officials that their trains had blocked the road on at least eight occasions this year alone, for intervals of time ranging from 15 minutes to 10 hours.

“It’s still happening,” she said. “We need to know how we can stop it.”

Camuso suggested train blockages lasting 15 to 20 minutes are considered routine.

“A 15- to 20-minute blockage, from a railroad standpoint, is not terrible,” he said. “There’s going to be blockages from time to time.”

Temporarily separating train cars before and after the Chappell Road crossing so they’re not blocking the roadway is one option CSX is considering, Camuso said.

Wally Sieruga, general manager of CSX’s operations service group, suggested community members may not always be calling the right phone number to report railroad crossing blockages. He said the company had received only seven official complaints.

“We can’t fix it unless we know it’s broken,” Sieruga said. “To be honest with you, when I saw seven [complaints], I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ … I’m not saying you’re not [calling]. Please don’t take it that way.”

Trains have blocked railroad crossings in Hunter Hills and nearby Dixie Hills at least 17 times since February 2022, according to documentation provided to Capital B Atlanta. Most or all of those blockages were reported to CSX, according to Reyes.

List of demands

Reyes also presented the officials with a list of nine demands from neighborhood residents. It requested that nationwide legislation be created to prevent railroads blocking roadways and that train engineers pay hefty fines within 30 days when road blockages do occur.

On Aug. 7, Atlanta City Council passed a resolution asking state and federal legislators to pass a law that would fine train companies when their engines block roads for too long. The Federal Rail Administration is primarily responsible for regulating U.S. train systems. 

Hunter Hills residents’ list of demands also asked that a pedestrian bridge be built to connect the sides of the neighborhood separated by the railroad tracks, noting that idling trains often prevent people who use public transportation from reaching a nearby MARTA station.

The residents also requested that CSX stop train horns from sounding overnight. CSX Assistant Superintendent Ray Billingsley said train personnel are required by law to use horns to warn people when an engine is coming, but that residents can ask their elected leaders to create quiet zones in which trains are legally barred from using horns.

“If the city, the community, wants a quiet zone, we can’t do anything about it,” he said. 

Hunter Hills residents also want benches installed at the Chappell Road bridge so people forced to wait for trains to pass have a place to sit. Camuso said CSX will pay for the benches.

“We’ll get that done,” he said, drawing applause from folks at the meeting.

After the meeting, Davis said he wasn’t sure how installing pedestrian benches at the Chappell Road crossing would help.

“I can’t see nobody sitting there if the train is sitting there, too. They’re sitting there waiting, not knowing if the train is going to ever move,” he said, adding that he was “satisfied” with how the conversation went. 

“I think doing something is better than doing nothing,” he said.

One community resident asked if a vehicular bridge could be built at the crossing. Camuso said building such a bridge could take years and would force the temporary shutdown of Chappell Road near Ezra Church Drive altogether for a time.

“I believe a pedestrian overpass would be better. It would at least offer a remedy for folks going to the MARTA station,” he said. ”The last thing we want is people crossing [the train tracks] to go to the MARTA station. If that train moves even a little bit, it could be a problem.”

Perrin Bostic, an outreach representative for Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, also attended Wednesday night’s meeting. He said his boss can help Hunter Hills residents obtain any necessary grant funding to address the crossing.

“You have support at the federal level,” Bostic said. “You just have to figure out how you want to proceed. We’ll just be waiting to hear from you all how you want us to proceed.”

Camuso, after the meeting, acknowledged how system racism has led to Black communities like Hunter Hills encountering more idling trains than other neighborhoods.

“I’m a native Atlantan, so I’m very aware of the historic communities in this area, and Hunter Hills being one of those,” he said. “What we look at is making sure that we are not inconveniencing the public, whether it is white, Black [or] red. … When we’re blocking a crossing, regardless of where it is, it’s an inconvenience to whoever’s there.”

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