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Trains Keep Blocking a Main Road in Hunter Hills. Residents Want to Know Why.

Community members had hoped to meet with CSX officials in June to discuss solutions after years of neglect.

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)

Hunter Hills resident Deborah Wright says she’s typically the one who calls CSX Corp. to complain when one of the company’s trains gets parked at the railroad crossing up the street from the home where she’s lived for the past four decades.

In all that time, the retired flight attendant — now in her early 70s — says CSX officials have never explained to her why it’s necessary for their trains to block auto traffic for hours at a time on Chappell Road Northwest near Bernard Street in her west Atlanta neighborhood.

Chappell Road is a main throughway for emergency vehicles heading to Grady Memorial Hospital. Residents in Hunter Hills fear one day that the train blockages will result in someone dying needlessly on their way to Grady.

Norfolk Southern trains also run on the tracks in Hunter Hills, but less frequently than CSX engines, residents say.

“They never have a reason,” Wright told Capital B Atlanta of CSX while standing outside her home. “They say, ‘We’ll just have to get with dispatch.’ And that’s the only thing they can tell us, so we don’t know anything.”

The problem has been ongoing for decades, according to Wright and other legacy Hunter Hills residents. It reached a climax in February 2022 when one of Wright’s neighbors, Tim Brown, says a train blocked Chappell Road for 30 hours.

Wait times improved dramatically in recent months after the neighborhood’s train problems gained additional media coverage and attention from elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. CSX trains still regularly block the road for estimated intervals of 15 to 30 minutes, according to Brown.

“We ask [why] all the time,” he said regarding the reason CSX trains have to block the road. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a straight answer.”

Wright, Brown, and other residents hoped to meet face to face with CSX officials in June to finally get some answers.

Post 3 At-Large Atlanta City Council member Keisha Sean Waites has spent months working to arrange the meeting at the request of state Rep. Mesha Mainor, who recently wrote an AJC op-ed about Hunter Hills’ train troubles.

Vincent Watkins, Waites’ chief of staff, said CSX officials originally planned to meet with Hunter Hills residents during an Atlanta City Council transportation committee meeting in early May. District 2 City Council member Amir Farokhi, who chairs the committee, advised the train company officials not to attend.

“The committee is not a forum for the private sector to hold court,” Farokhi told Capital B Atlanta via text. “I encouraged [CSX] to work with the district councilmember and the residents Hills] residents.”

Most railroads in Georgia are regulated by the state and federal government, not the city of Atlanta.

CSX declined to say why its trains need to block the road in Hunter Hills in an emailed statement to Capital B Atlanta on June 29. The company said safety is its number one priority and it strives to “be a good neighbor to communities where we operate.”

“Our goal is to keep freight moving and we take every reasonable effort to ensure that our trains occupy grade crossings for the shortest time possible,” the company wrote. “We are aware of the challenges that exist in Hunter Hills and we continue to explore ways to alleviate the concerns.”

‘I think they really don’t care’

Hunter Hills residents Andre’a Swain (left) and Tim Brown discuss the latest developments with trains blocking a main road in their southwest Atlanta neighborhood on July 3. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Hunter Hills remains a largely working-class, majority Black neighborhood with a median household income well below the national average despite some recent-year gentrification, residents say.

Throughout history, interstate highways and railroad tracks have served as dividing lines between Black and white communities. 

Watkins said Waites and her staff began planning a Hunter Hills community meeting with officials from CSX and Norfolk Southern. An offer was extended for CSX President and CEO Joseph Hinrichs to participate, but the company hasn’t committed to a meeting date.

“There has been no progress in terms of understanding what the situation is or what the reasons are,” Watkins continued. “Some of the constituents in the community continue to be aggravated by this.”

One of those constituents is Andre’a Swain, an Army veteran and retired DeKalb County Jail employee who has lived in Hunter Hills most of his life. 

“I think they really don’t care,” he said. “If anybody in the community has a problem with a health problem or something and that train’s right there, they can’t even get by.”

Historic Hunter Hills Neighborhood Association leader Lisa Reyes and others in the community say they don’t think CSX would be slow to meet with them if they lived in a more affluent, white Atlanta neighborhood.

“I just feel like it’s something that they have been able to do for so many years,” Reyes said. “I don’t think that they’re actually thinking about the people who actually live here and their lives and how it impacts us.”