Major traffic delays for fast-moving trains aren’t expected in Bartholomew County until late 2018, but a different kind of train delay for motorists and emergency responders is scheduled to begin this weekend.

Louisville & Indiana and CSX railroads are starting work to upgrade rail crossings through Bartholomew County to prepare the intersections for high-speed rail traffic.

Last year, the railroads completed installing new rail and upgrading intersections from Louisville through northern Jackson County, and work is now beginning to complete the process through Bartholomew County and north to Indianapolis.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, crews began closing and working on rail crossings in northern Jackson County and expect to be in southern Bartholomew County by this weekend, said Andrea Janka, spokeswoman for Safety Services & Supply Inc. of Lima, Ohio. The company is handling traffic and public safety aspects of the work for Louisville & Indiana Railroad, which is leasing the track to CSX Railroad for the high-speed rail traffic heading northbound to Indianapolis.

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Crews shut down Jackson County Road 760E, and moved on to Jackson County Road 1000N, southwest of the Interstate 65 and State Road 11 intersection for the work on Tuesday and Wednesday, Janka said.

If weather permits, crews are planning to move on to Bartholomew County Road 1100S, also known as County Line Road, possibly as early as this weekend, she said. Workers from R.J. Corman Railroad Group of Nicholasville, Kentucky, will then begin work in Jonesville, Janka said.

That work will involve closing Poplar Street on Jonesville’s south side for a day or two as crews replace train track with the high-speed rails, she said.

All road closings will be between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., which is for safety reasons.

The two railroad crossings in Jonesville, at Poplar and Jackson streets, are about six blocks apart — giving motorists a short alternate route to get to The Brick or other businesses in the area.

However, Janka emphasized the timetable is tentative — and residents shouldn’t be surprised if the work gets delayed for a day or two.

“People get upset by this, but we can’t work in the rain,” Janka said. “And with trains still coming through, we often only have two to three hours at a time.”

The work this week marks the beginning of about four short-term road and street closings per week that will continue over the next several months due to the railroad upgrades, Janka said.

Replacement of rails at six crossings in Columbus will start in late May or early June, she said. That includes 11th Street, Eighth Street, Fifth Street, State Road 46, Spear Street and County Road 200S.

In all cases, commuters will be asked to follow posted detours, she said.

Planning for detours

Area law enforcement and firefighters said they had not been formally notified about any potential detours when contacted by The Republic about how they were planning to work around the closed crossings in the upcoming months.Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Steinkoenig, commander of the department’s road deputies, said the county will depend on information provided through the Emergency Operations Center in Columbus to keep up to date on areas where railroad crossings are closed.

“But we have enough alternative routes. We aren’t going to change things a whole lot,” he said.

If the State Road 46/State Road 11 railroad crossing would be closed for an extensive period of time, the sheriff’s department might consider keeping a deputy on the west side of town, but other than that it will be business as usual, he said.

The road deputies know the back ways and alternative routes to get to locations quickly, Steinkoenig said.

Columbus Fire Department, which has mutual-aid agreements with the area township fire departments, is checking in with the railroad to determine what the schedule will be locally, said Capt. Mike Wilson, Columbus Fire Department spokesman.

Most of the areas with a railroad crossing scheduled for an upgrade, such as County Road 450S at Southern Crossing, have an alternative — in this case, Deaver Road, to get across the tracks and protect the area to the south, Wilson said.

In another example, if work were being done at the crossing on County Road 200S, firefighters would access Spear Street around the crossing, he said.

Columbus Fire Chief Mike Compton’s primary concern is making sure the county emergency operations center and the railroad have a communication system in place ahead of the work to make sure area fire departments know when work begins at a railroad crossing, and when it is actually completed, Wilson said.

Columbus firefighters also work closely with the Emergency Operations Center for information about when trains are running, and to directly contact the railroad if they need a train stopped for the safety of first responders at a fire scene or an accident on the railroad tracks.

Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center Director Ed Reuter said he hopes to have a schedule out to area first responders in the next few days to update them on when the railroad plans to begin closing crossings and posting detours.

The information will be emailed in a similar manner to road construction updates the operations center sends out weekly so that police, firefighters, ambulance crews and others know which roads are closed or have flaggers, which could cause delays in getting to an emergency call.

Rail upgrade process

Weekly updates on rail crossings along the Louisville & Indiana tracks are expected from the railroad as the project slowly makes its way north to Indianapolis, Janka said.Typically, crews will do one side of a crossing at two to four sites — and then return to complete the work on the other side, she said.

A total of 154 crossings between Louisville and Indianapolis were studied in anticipation of the $100 million project to create a continuous-welded rail line for northbound freight.

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 due to trains — State Road 46 (top of the list), Eighth Street and 11th Street.

CSX is leasing the Louisville & Indiana Railroad tracks, with plans to bring in longer, faster and heavier trains beginning in the third or fourth quarter of 2018.

It won’t be sooner than that because the railroad must first replace the Flatrock River Bridge near Columbus. The century-old rail bridge needs to be widened for modern rail traffic and upgraded to carry the double-stacked rail cars the railroad plans to use.

A consulting firm Columbus hired to study the railroad project’s impact, American StructurePoint of Indianapolis, shows that the city will have as many as 22 trains a day traveling through the State Road 46 intersection compared to eight now, and the trains’ length will be longer, from 5,100 feet now to 7,500 feet in the future.

While the term high-speed has been used, the upgrades beginning this week are actually intended to better stabilize the tracks for heavier axle loads, Janka said.

Heavier axle loads require more substantial construction than found on branch lines and short lines, which typically have lower traffic levels and lower operating speeds, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

About the project

Louisville & Indiana and CSX Transportation received approval on April 10, 2015 from the federal Surface Transportation Board to use L&I’s 106-mile mainline between Louisville and Indianapolis jointly. The two railroads plan to upgrade the line from jointed steel rails to continuous-welded ones to allow heavier and faster trains to move through Columbus and other cities along the line. The plan calls for CSX, which would invest $90 million in improvements, to shift an estimated 13 to 15 trains per day to the L&I line, traveling through Columbus.

Louisville & Indiana completed its agreement on June 15, 2015 with CSX granting a permanent easement to operate over the L&I rail corridor between Indianapolis and Louisville. In addition to CSX’s $10 million easement purchase, the two companies finalized an operating agreement that provides for the additional $90 million in infrastructure upgrades during the next few years. The rail upgrades include installing new rail, upgrades to the rail bed structure and bridge improvements.

In addition to increasing the number of trains traveling through Columbus, the trains’ length will be longer, from 5,100 feet now to 7,500 feet. The trains will go from just single-stacked cars to double-stacked, the consultants said. The speed limit through Columbus will remain at 15 mph although it will increase up to 50 mph on other parts of the line as it heads to Indianapolis.

The increased train traffic will be delayed until late 2018 as the railroad replaces the Flat Rock River Bridge in Columbus, an estimated 100-year-old rail bridge that needs to be widened for today’s rail traffic and changed to allow the double-stacked rail cars the railroad plans to use, the consultants said.

To learn more

The city of Columbus has a website to keep local residents informed about developments involving the Louisville & Indiana and CSX railroad improvements through Bartholomew County.

To view a presentation on the railroad study, go to http://columbusrailroadproject.org/.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.