BUTLER COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - No way in or out.
Residents in two Butler County neighborhoods say they're trapped for hours when trains block access on their dead-end streets.
It's happened numerous times over the last year and now county officials fear it's just a matter of time before an emergency happens when the area is inaccessible.
"People are going to die and they flat don't care," said Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones. "I'm willing to stop the train, arrest them and put them in jail myself. That's how angry I am."
Jones and other county officials, including the Butler County Engineer and Hanover Township trustees, told FOX19 Investigates stopped CSX trains have turned two Hanover Township neighborhoods into virtual islands. Darrtown and Hussey Roads both dead end and when the trains block the grade crossings, residents are stranded with no way in or out.
"When it blocks us, we don't have any option to go around," said Chris Lee, a homeowner on Darrtown Road. "It'll block us for one hour, two hours, three hours that's pretty common. Last summer it was nine hours they had us blocked."
Lee said one morning a train blocked access right when neighbors were trying to get to work and school.
"They'll have somebody pick them up on the other side of the tracks. They climb across the trains while it's sitting there," he said.
FOX19 Investigates requested audio tapes of calls to Butler County Sheriff's Office 911 Dispatch Center. On one call we heard a frustrated homeowner describe a train blocking Darrtown Road for several hours.
Butler County engineer Greg Wilkens also has safety concerns.
"Lately it seems to be getting worse." Wilkens said. "Just picture yourself, you've got places to go and you need your vehicle and you can't get out of your driveway for six hours solid. Just the total inconvenience of it, irrelevant of those emergency situations that are really critical."
In 2011 Wilkens said they saw similar issues with random and unannounced closings at the same rail crossings on Darrtown and Hussey Roads. Hanover Township trustees filed a complaint with CSX and also sent a letter to the Chairman of CSX Transportation, Inc., complaining that the railroad was failing to comply with local regulations. He said they also had a meeting with CSX representatives and the frequency of blocked access became negligible. The problem has resurfaced, Wilkens said, in the last year.
"We went on public record back in '11," he said. "Now there seems to be some excuse typically of why this happens."
Wilkens said CSX representatives have told the county the closings are often for mechanical or operational issues. However, he believes, it's a convenience issue for the railroad.
On February 13, 2015 Hanover Township trustees sent a letter to CSX Transportation which outlined concerns about the blocked at-grade rail crossings. On March 16, 2015 a CSX transportation representative sent a formal apology letter, that in part read:
"CSX is working internally across all team functions to improve service for our customers and operational efficiency on the network…In addition, specifically to the circumstances in Hanover Township, CSX Dispatchers and crew members have been briefed and provided directives to not stage trains across the Darrtown Road at-grade crossing. The unique characteristics of that crossing with limited access for residents led to this new internal policy," the letter reads.
But since that letter was received, Butler County Sheriff's Office 911 Dispatch Center has received about a half-dozen calls of stopped trains on Darrtown Road.
Sheriff Jones believes legislation and stiffer fines are the only way to resolve the issue.
"The first time it should be a $10,000 fine, second time, $20,000, then it should jump to $50,000 and the fourth time, somebody should be arrested and go to jail," he said.
Right now, deputies issued citations when a railroad company violates ORC 5589.21, which states they could face a fine at the end of each five minute period of obstruction. However, if the stoppage occurs in the unincorporated area of one of more counties, the county may charge the railroad company with only one violation of the law. In other words, says Wilkens, whether the train is stopped for five minutes or five hours, they only face one citation.
Right now, the fine is $125.
We contacted CSX Transportation about this issue and received the following statement via e-mail:
"Our management team has been working to improve train movements in the Butler County area and throughout the entire operating system. As a result of these efforts, over the past month, many of the issues with blocked crossings in the area have improved; we continue to focus on making additional progress to minimize interruptions to residents and the community. Train crews and dispatchers have been briefed and instructed not to stage trains across the (sic) Darrotown Road at grade crossing.
The efforts to improve fluidity and reduce impacts in the community are ongoing.
We apologize for any disruptions Butler residents are experiencing and will continue to work with state and local officials to update them on our progress.
We encourage residents to call 1-800-232-0144 (1-800-TELL-CSX) to report interruptions caused by trains moving through the community." - Gail Lobin, CSX Corporate Communications.