Trains blocking railroad crossings a major safety concern for first responders

PITTSBURGH — People who live in Bridgewater Borough say the railroad tracks along Mulberry Street are dangerous because sometimes trains are stopped for two, three, four, or even six hours at a time and if a first responder can’t get through, it could be the difference between life or death.

When seconds matter, any first responder will tell you there’s simply no room for error. Throughout the country, cameras have captured images of trains blocking railroad crossings, preventing ambulances and first responders from getting through in emergencies. Chuck Bates is Bridgewater Borough’s council president. He’s also the fire chief.

“There are legitimate concerns here,” Chief Bates tells Channel 11.

Bates says trains, stopped on these Norfolk Southern tracks for hours at a time, are creating a public safety nightmare. He says his fire department actually got trapped from leaving a fire call. He fears what could have happened if the train was blocking firetrucks from crossing the tracks on the way to the fire.

“How do you explain an ambulance not being able to get back there? How do you explain the fire trucks getting stuck back there and can’t get back out,” Chief Bates added.

There is an access point for emergencies, but Chief Bates says these Norfolk Southern trains are so long, they block the crossing in Beaver, two miles up the road.

“That’s impacting a lot more lives than they might realize,” Bates added.

11 investigates uncovered data that shows multiple complaints have been filed at this particular crossing in the last year.

Including several complaints of:

“Pedestrians observed climbing on, over, or through the train cars”

“The train blocked fire apparatus from leaving an incident ... had this crossing block occurred 5 minutes later, it would have blocked the fire apparatus from getting to an emergency.”

But it’s hardly the only crossing in our area being blocked by trains for minutes if not hours at a time.

“Ambridge, New Galilee, anyone with trains,” Chief Bates said. “Bridgewater is surrounded by it with rivers and trains.”

Neighbors argue, not only is this a major public safety concern, but it’s also affecting their livelihoods.

Chuck Betters has invested millions of dollars into high-end apartments. It’s prime real estate right along the Ohio River, but he says it’s creating a major problem for his tenants.

“The tenants in here are getting tortured,” Betters added.

There are 135 units in Betters’ development. He says tenants can’t drive across the tracks for hours at a time. Sometimes they can’t get to work, they can’t get out to run an errand or they get stuck trying to get back home.

“This cannot go on this way,” Betters added. “It’s a very hazardous, dangerous condition.”

Betters has made one of the largest investments in Bridgewater in 50 years with three buildings of apartments, a clubhouse, pool, and waterfront bar and restaurant; but, he says he can’t get people to come or move in. He and Chief Bates say their countless calls to the number on the crossing to report the trains stopped for hours and blocking first responders, have done nothing.

We asked Betters if the railroad was working on a solution.

Betters said, “No, usually by the time you’re done talking to them you don’t know what they said. You can only make so many complaints with no reaction to it, what else could you possibly do.”

Betters says he left with no option but to sue Norfolk Southern to get something to change.

“They’ve cost me tenants, they’ve cost me money, the damages, my reputation,” Betters added.

Aside from the frustrating inconvenience, folks want to see this crossing addressed before someone in need of life-saving help, can’t be reached across the tracks.

“I hope to god we don’t have to deal with that,” Chuck Betters said. “I hope we find a resolution before that kind of ugly situation happens.”

“Pleading, we plea with the railroad to use commonsense, use their minds and capabilities to move this signal back, keep this crossing open,” Chief Bates adds.

There’s no room for a delayed response. Yet, cameras have captured trains blocking railroad crossings, preventing ambulances and first responders from getting through in an emergency.

We reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment.

“First and foremost, we make every effort to avoid inconveniencing communities with a stopped train. Trains have to stop for a number of reasons, including congestion on the tracks or in yards, coordinating traffic with other railroads, federally-mandated crew rest time, power outages affecting train signal devices, or mechanical issues. Specific points on the railroad that are close to our railyards also may see these issues more frequently due to normal yard operations.

“Specifically, over the last few months, we’ve been implementing changes to rules governing how trains are built which has had an impact on our service and exacerbated some of these issues. We’re confident our service will continue improving with time.

“Our goal is to keep our trains moving safely and the teams within our Network Operations Center make every effort to minimize these events. We also partner with communities to identify short-term and permanent solutions such as overpasses and closing crossings, where it makes sense. That includes contributing funds directly to communities and helping them to apply for infrastructure grants.

“Lastly, our operations team is aware of this crossing, and we make efforts to stage trains in a way that minimizes impacts for this complex. We’ll continue to work closely with local leaders on this spot.”

Connor Spielmaker, Norfolk Southern spokesman

Download the FREE WPXI News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Channel 11 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch WPXI NOW