Longer delays at railroad crossings through Columbus may occur sooner than anticipated.

CSX and Louisville & Indiana railroads announced they will begin increasing the frequency, length and speed of freight trains on the rail line from Seymour to Indianapolis as soon as Aug. 21. That includes trains traveling through the crossing at State Road 46 and State Road 11 on Columbus’ west side.

That date is a year earlier than predictions from city of Columbus officials and their consultant, who said the railroads would not increase rail traffic significantly before the third quarter of 2018, after the 100-year-old Noblitt Park railroad bridge over the Flat Rock River is rebuilt.

The difference reflects a two-step approach to increased rail traffic, railroad and city officials said.

The initial scope of increased train traffic includes two more CSX trains a day compared to up to six daily trains now, said John Goldman, Louisville & Indiana Railroad president.

That’s in addition to the two to four trains a day that Louisville & Indiana runs on the line.

While this increased volume is well short of the estimated 22 trains a day expected to travel through the State Road 46/State Road 11 crossing beginning in late 2018 as predicted by city consultant American StructurePoint, the addition of even a couple more trains will have an impact, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said.

“They (CSX) have been diverting trains at Seymour for some time as the rail work continues, and we think this is CSX telling us that is about to change sooner rather than later,” Lienhoop said.

And while Lienhoop said he is always concerned about the train traffic, he also said it’s unknown what times of day these additional trains will be passing through Columbus. Timing will be key in determining what kind of effect the trains will have on motorists heading into the city, he said.

“A train at 7:30 a.m. on a weekday has a lot more effect than one at 3:30 in the morning,” the mayor said. “This may be giving us a taste of what’s in store for us next year.”

The city has entered into a collaborative agreement with the state of Indiana, Cummins Inc., the two railroads and Bartholomew County officials to build a $30 million overpass over the State Road 46/State Road 11 intersection. The overpass would be designed and built using a combination of Indiana Department of Transportation funding, tax increment financing money provided through Cummins, and contributions from the railroads and the county and the city.

Some grant funding will be needed to reach the $30 million estimate, but city officials said savings may come in the project cost which they estimate at closer to $27.2 million and the ability to pick up state and federal grants.

Ultimately, American StructurePoint’s impact study shows Columbus will begin experiencing as many as 22 trains a day traveling through Columbus compared to about eight now. The longer, heavier and faster trains will increase traffic delays from an average wait of 13 minutes now to a projected 20 minutes in late 2018 and up to 40 minutes by 2036 unless modifications such as an overpass are installed.

The city’s proposal for the overpass with pretzel-shaped traffic pattern intersection at the crossing on Columbus’ west side was added to the state’s project list in June, but construction probably can’t begin until 2019 or 2020, Lienhoop said.

That means that even with the most optimistic construction schedule, local commuters will be facing longer traffic delays driving in from the west side of the county until the overpass is completed.

While railroad officials have said the higher speeds of the trains would lessen the delays for motorists, condition of the Flat Rock River bridge — until it is improved — will cause trains to slow when heading through Columbus, traveling either north or south, Goldman said. The maximum speed limit for trains on the high-speed line will be 49 mph, but the speed limit on the bridge in Columbus is 10 mph, he said.

Trains need significant time to slow to 10 mph for the bridge, meaning trains passing through Columbus will travel slower as they approach the bridge, Goldman said.

“They are going to start slowing miles ahead of the bridge,” he said.

Goldman also said that while predictions had been made that train traffic would flow northward through Columbus, the railroad has the option of running trains southbound on the line and may do so.

“There is no limiting factor on our trains,” he said of the schedule. “We can run as many as we need to.”

The city is working on two projects to help emergency responders and motorists handle the increased train traffic.

Dave Hayward, executive director of public works/city engineer, said the city is working with a vendor who would place cameras at three different crossings that would transmit to the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center. When dispatching emergency responders, dispatchers would be able to see if a train was approaching or crossing an intersection and help direct the response appropriately.

The city also hopes to work with Purdue Polytchnic students during the fall semester on a cellphone app that would feed off the video signal and let drivers know when a train was approaching so motorists could choose an alternate route around the train delay.

However, that is still in the works, and it is unknown how long it would take to develop an app for that process, Hayward said.

Where to learn more

For information about the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Service Improvement Plan, visit csx.com/LIRC.

To learn about safety around railroad crossings, visit oli.org.

The city’s plans for the railroad overpass are on its website at columbus.in.gov/ accessible by clicking on the railroad link on the first page.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.