There may not be enough time to build an overpass, but Columbus officials are looking for ways around a plan that will more than double the number of freight trains through the city in another year.
The Columbus city budget contains the first indication that city officials are already thinking about ways to cope when a Louisville & Indiana Railroad lease to CSX results in longer, heavier and faster trains traveling through Bartholomew County and Columbus beginning in 2018.
When city councilmen consider the budget on final reading Tuesday, they will be approving a plan to spend about $150,000 to place a fire department truck with specialized extrication equipment used in car accidents and other incidents at Station 5 on Columbus’ west side.
That’s in response to the possibility that firefighters assigned to Squad 1 at Station 1 in downtown Columbus, and their extrication equipment, could be blocked by a train crossing State Road 46 on the west side of downtown.
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The northbound longer, faster and heavier CSX trains are expected to increase the current wait time at the State Road 46 crossing of about 13 minutes now for eastbound traffic to about 20 minutes in 2018 — and grow to 40-minute delays by 2036. Those times reflect what will happen if nothing is done to change the rail crossing configuration, consultants from Indianapolis engineering firm American Structurepoint Inc. said.
The consultants are being paid up to $125,000 by the city to determine how the trains will affect local traffic and the cost and impact of a solution such as building an overpass at the State Road 46 intersection.
The delays projected by the consultants take into account increasing traffic projected for the State Road 46 train intersection and the impact of having 22 longer trains a day passing through Columbus, compared to eight now. In addition to increasing the number of trains, the trains’ length will be longer, from 5,100 feet now to 7,500 feet.
The increased train traffic will be delayed by a year as the railroad replaces the Flat Rock River Bridge near Columbus, a century-old rail bridge that needs to be widened for today’s rail traffic and changed to carry double-stacked rail cars the railroad plans to use, the consultants said.
American Structurepoint reviewed traffic counts at six railroad crossings in Columbus for its study: 11th Street, Eighth Street, Fifth Street, State Road 46, Spear Street and County Road 200S.
City officials have learned that when CSX Transportation submitted its environmental assessment of the proposed changes in April 2015 to federal officials, their own assessment showed three crossings in Columbus ranked in the top five of daily vehicle delays — State Road 46 (top of the list), Eighth Street and 11th Street. That’s out of 154 intersections studied between Louisville and Indianapolis, and includes crossings in Seymour, Taylorsville, Edinburgh, Franklin and Greenwood.
Moving equipment west
Capt. Mike Wilson, Columbus Fire Department spokesman, said the department’s goal is to have extrication equipment, commonly referred to as the Jaws of Life, available on the west side of Columbus to be immediately dispatched to an accident if necessary. The west-side firefighters are among the first to be sent when accidents happen on Interstate 65 near the Columbus exit.The $150,000 being appropriated in the budget is being used to refurbish the Squad 1 truck, which is about 20 years old, and move it to west-side Station 5, while buying a new squad vehicle for Station 1 in the downtown area, firefighters said.
The new Squad 1 was budgeted for purchase in 2016 and a request for proposals is being advertised this week. Cost of a new squad can be as much as $600,000 depending on what options and equipment is included, firefighters said.
A long-term goal for the fire department is to increase manpower at the city’s two west-side stations, Stations 5 and 6, although upping the numbers isn’t going to happen right away, Wilson said.
Station 5 has four fighters on duty and Station 6 has three, meaning there are seven firefighters available on shift from the two stations on a daily basis.
In comparison, Wilson said a recent fatal accident on Interstate 65 involving two semis and a pickup truck, that required a lengthy extrication, had 17 firefighters at the scene, including a battalion commander. Columbus firefighters also called for mutual aid and additional extrication equipment from Columbus Township, which it received, Wilson said.
In a routine fire call, Wilson said the fire department would send two engines, a ladder truck (from Station 1) and a battalion chief. Although the city does have the two engines on the west side, some resources, including manpower, remain on the other side of the tracks.
“It’s obviously a concern having appropriate resources where they need to be,” Wilson said.
The city and Columbus Regional Hospital cooperated in an agreement to move an ambulance out to Station 5 to serve the west-side area in November 2013. However, the train delays work in the opposite direction, too. An ambulance heading to the hospital from the west side could be blocked eastbound on Jonathan Moore Pike enroute to the hospital on 17th Street.
Adam Hoskins, manager of ambulance serves at Columbus Regional Hospital, said the hospital is continually monitoring ambulance run volumes, response and transport times and the total time needed for tasks. And so far, the ambulance service has not seen an increase in monitored times or volumes compared to previous years, he said.
Hoskins said as the data is monitored monthly, if an issue becomes apparent from increased train traffic, the hospital and the Ambulance Oversight Committee will explore options to provide efficient care to local residents.
The ambulance committee has been considering the “what ifs” of the train issue, and how ambulance service might be affected with the increased train traffic, Hoskins said.
That includes the possibility of a second ambulance being placed somewhere on the west side, which could cover additional calls if the Station 5 ambulance is on a run, and a passing train delays a backup coming from the downtown area.
Determining where to put a second ambulance has come up in conversation, Hoskins said.
Moving an ambulance to Fire Station 5 was part of a new contract between the hospital and the city for ambulance service in 2013. Another ambulance was moved that year to Fire Station 1 at Washington and 11th streets — with both moves an effort to improve ambulance response times.
Then-Mayor Kristen Brown also had concerns that the west side was cut off from ambulance service when Jonathan Moore Pike flooded in 2008, marooning west-side residents from the rest of the city.
Heading south to get around trains
Aside from flooding issues, city officials are also considering just how far south fire trucks and ambulances might need to travel to get around a train traveling at 15 mph through Columbus.Firefighters might consider heading down State Road 11 using the County Road 200S crossing that might clear more quickly if a train were blocking the State Road 46 crossing, Wilson said.
Another way around the State Road 46 intersection, and the other city grade crossings when heading into Columbus from the west, is heading north to Lowell Road, which winds its way along and across the Flat Rock River to Columbus’ only current overpass over the railroad tracks, on U.S. 31 north.
Columbus officials have been talking with Bartholomew County officials about improvements to the road, which the locals know as a county road bypass to U.S. 31, albiet a curvy and narrow one.
“It’s favored by many a high school student with his dad’s car,” said John Dorenbusch, who chairs the Railroad Project Community Committee and is vice president of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission.
Lowell has a couple of 90-degree curves, and a few fairly significant jogs, and the road is only about 19 to 20 feet wide, compared to a standard of about 22 feet that would be required, with a paved shoulder, for today’s county road construction, said Danny Hollander, Bartholomew County engineer.
If residents want a straighter road with bike paths, they would have to consider a 28-foot width, he said. It’s conceivable the road could be improved to allow drivers to travel at a 30 to 40 mph clip, depending on how much money officials want to spend, he said.
The ambulance oversight committee also considers contingency plans for ambulance runs to the hospital that need to be rerouted if a train blocks or delays a crossing at State Road 46. Ambulance crews know they can use Lowell Road on the west side to go around to the north side of the city at U.S. 31 or even take Interstate 65 to U.S. 31 and then south to Columbus if necessary when a train is across the tracks, Hoskins said.
Speed isn’t just a factor for ambulances. The new trains will be traveling faster too, although not through the city limits.
Outside the city limits, the trains will be able to run up to 50 mph on certain parts of the rail line heading toward Indianapolis, but will have to continue to slow down to 15 mph through Columbus, as the trains have done in the past.
This has caused concern about some of the crossings outside the city limits, which are grade crossings without gates or flashing lights to warn a train is approaching.
Many of the grade crossings along State Road 11 toward Seymour do not have stop arms, Wilson said. The stop arms and lights are at County Road 200S, County Road 450S and Deaver Road, with the remainder just having stop signs and train warnings to alert drivers.
Hollander said the county keeps the tree lines and bushes trimmed back fairly well along the tracks, and the railroad does a decent job of keeping the sight lines open. But these trains are moving faster and drivers will need to see further down the tracks if attempting to cross before an oncoming train, Hollander said.
The Columbus Fire Department recently completed training with CSX personnel and one of the warnings that was received is that motorists have to assume a train might be coming every time they approach a railroad crossing, Wilson said.
“They emphasized that everyone has to be alert and watch for the trains,” Wilson said.
To view a presentation on the railroad study, go to the city of Columbus website at columbus.in.gov/ and click on the railroad presentation link on the right hand side of the web page.
The Columbus Fire Department is planning to have extrication equipment, commonly referred to as the Jaws of Life, both east and west of the railroad line that bisects the city sometime next year.
The 2017 city budget includes $150,000 to refurbish the Squad 1 truck, currently located at Station 1 near the downtown at 1101 Jackson St., and move it to Station 5 at 100 Goeller Court west of Interstate 65. The west-side firefighters are among the first to be sent when accidents happen on I-65 near the Columbus exit.
A new Squad 1 was budgeted for purchase this year at an estimated cost of $600,000, depending on what options and equipment is included.