A railroad freight company that has come under heavy criticism from local officials and residents about safety and health issues in the 19th Ward and surrounding areas is being directed to report to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) more often and will be under a more watchful eye from federal authorities, according to officials.
In the past year, local officials have complained that CSX Transportation Inc. had been violating an agreement it made three years ago when assuming operations of the Elsdon Line, which runs through Beverly, Mt. Greenwood, Evergreen Park and nearby communities.
Officials and residents complained that trains stop for prolonged periods, preventing emergency personnel from passing and leading some children to climb between stopped train cars to get to school. They also said the noise of ringing safety signals late at night, when the trains are stopped, disturbs residents, and they said safety gates go down at times when no train is present.
Local officials said they have little control over railroad companies, as they often operate across state lines and are governed by federal regulations.
Last September, 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea, Evergreen Park Mayor Jim Sexton, state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) and state Rep. Fran Hurley (D-35th) signed a letter to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd) and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asking for assistance and claiming CSX “failed to live up to the conditions” it agreed to with the STB when it took over the line. In February, the city of Chicago and Evergreen Park filed a petition with the STB asking for sanctions against CSX for creating unsafe traffic conditions.
According to the STB, as part of a 2013 agreement, CSX said its trains would not stop at-grade crossings for more than 10 minutes and assured officials it would work with other rail companies to prevent their trains from interfering with CSX trains when they are on the same line; the agreement said CSX trains would only run when the entire line was clear and no other trains would intersect with the line.
According to the STB, CSX violated terms of that agreement and will now have to provide monthly updates of train activity; previously, CSX officials provided quarterly updates.
“If the new data reported by [CSX] demonstrates that it is not making significant progress or that the situation is not improving, we will then take additional action, as appropriate,” the STB said in the ruling announced on June 22.
Lipinski, who claimed CSX could face fines if the problems persist, said he reached out to the STB and is pleased with its decision.
“This is good news for residents of far southwestern Chicago and surrounding communities,” Lipinski said in a prepared statement. “Over the past few years, I have heard from many frustrated residents and local officials regarding frequent and lengthy traffic delays caused by CSX freight trains. These blocked crossings are more than just a nuisance because they impact access to hospitals in the area. I am very happy that the STB has responded to my request and is re-examining whether CSX is following the terms of the agreement they made to not block crossings when the purchase of the line received federal approval.
“CSX has said that it has made and continues to make efforts to improve equipment and scheduling to alleviate the blocked crossings. Now the STB will be monitoring the situation to determine if they are in compliance with the terms of the 2013 agreement or if further action needs to be taken. I will continue to closely watch this situation.”
Durbin said in a prepared statement that he approved of the decision.
“Since CSX acquired the Elsdon Rail Line in 2013, the increased frequency of rail-traffic-blocked crossings has led to significant traffic delays and threats to pedestrian safety,” Durbin said. “The STB has a responsibility to ensure that railroads like CSX honor their commitments and do everything possible to safely move freight through communities like Beverly in Chicago as well as the Village of Evergreen Park. I am glad the STB has finally chosen to exercise its authority today.”
In March, CSX officials said a project called the Chicago Integrated Rail Operations Center (CIROC), which began last December as part of a Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) project, had resolved some problems.
Tom Livingston, CSX regional vice president of Midwest government and community affairs, said at the time that train congestion is part of the problem, calling the Chicago area “the Super Bowl” of freight train traffic and the local neighborhood “the Super Bowl of the Super Bowl” of train activity, with some rail companies using the same lines.
He added that CSX has invested more than $12 million in the Elsdon Line to improve operations. The line runs from Riverdale in the southeast suburbs to Bedford Park, which is north of the 19th Ward, and is one of several rail lines in the area, including Amtrak and Metra passenger lines, that intersect.
To improve the problem, CSX officials said, they have rebuilt grade crossings at intersections at 127th, 119th, 115th, 111th, 103rd, 95th, 91st and 87th streets, and at 94th Street and Kedzie Avenue. New mobile-based signal technology is being used, officials said, as well as new monitoring technology at the Evergreen Park Municipal Center. Updated signal systems are also in place at 94th and Kedzie, as well as 95th Street.
In response to the STB announcement, CSX Spokesperson Gail Lobin said on June 23 that her company’s investment will continue to improve the situation.
“Since 2013, CSX has invested more than $12 million and implemented new protocols to improve the flow of traffic on the Elsdon Line through Evergreen Park and the 19th Ward,” Lobin said in an email. “We appreciate that we still have work to do, and in furtherance of yesterday’s STB decision, we will continue to build on the better performance we have already seen in 2016.”
In a phone interview, Lipinski said he is cautiously optimistic that the STB’s ruling will help.
“I understand that things seem to have gone better recently, but that has happened before,” Lipinski said. “Hopefully, this action by the STB will make sure that things continue to get better.”
O’Shea disputed CSX claims of progress in March, saying access to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn from the local community continued to be blocked.
Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park is also frequently used by neighborhoods around the line, and officials said access to that hospital had also been disrupted.
“It’s obviously a big issue with the hospitals there,” Lipinski said. “Fortunately, there’s not been a serious incident, but that’s always the biggest concern.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also voiced support for the STB decision.
“Ever since CSX secured the right to operate on this track, residents have told us that trains along the Elsdon Line routinely cause lengthy delays that not only inconvenience residents but threaten public safety by blocking access to area hospitals,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement. “My administration has been working closely with Ald. O’Shea and other local elected officials to hold the railroad accountable for their repeated violations in order to bring relief to the local community.”
In prepared statements, Hurley said she was “pleased” that the STB intervened, and Cunningham, who represents Chicago communities and Evergreen Park, said the ruling shows the strength of neighborhoods when they work together.
“For too long, CSX has ignored their own promises to operate a safe and efficient rail line in our community,” Cunningham said. “The ruling demonstrates that Chicago and Evergreen Park will do everything possible to hold CSX accountable for their neglect.”
The STB’s involvement, Lipinski said, should get CSX officials’ attention. He stressed that trains traveling through the area will always be present, but he wants to see the problems resolved.
“The STB is the one authority that really has direct ability to have an impact on them, so the railroads pay attention to the STB more than anyone else,” Lipinski said. “So I think that makes a difference here, to come forward with this ruling and eventually tell CSX that they better perform well and not block the crossing.
“But we’ll see what happens. Everyone understands that the trains are still going to be there. We’re not saying the trains aren’t going to be there or anything—it’s just that the hope is that trains won’t stop; there won’t be broken gates down now and then no train coming.”
In a mass email to the community, O’Shea invited anyone who encounters a crossing that is blocked for more than 10 minutes to notify him at email@example.com.