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Eastbound morning commuters on their way to work in Columbus have found their path blocked by freight trains lately, generating frustration among motorists and city officials.
“I’ve been caught three or four times as early as 8:30 a.m.,” motorist Pinkie Beck said.
She was waiting with drivers of several dozen other vehicles for a slow-moving train to pass through the State Road 46 crossing just west of downtown at 9:45 a.m. Monday.
It generally takes at least 10 minutes for a long freight train to pass completely through as automobiles and trucks wait with engines idling.
Vehicle traffic at the State Road 46 railroad crossing is brisk at morning and evening rush hours.
Traffic count per day
Vehicles per hour from 7 to 8 a.m.
Vehicles per hour from 8 to 9 a.m.
Vehicles per hour from 4 to 6 p.m.
Source: Indiana Department of Transportation; totals are eastbound and westbound combined.
An alternative route?
It’s probably not worth all the extra driving. But if you commute from west of downtown Columbus, consider this:
As you near Columbus on Jonathan Moore Pike, turn right at West Goeller Boulevard, then travel south on Terrace Lake Road to West County Road 200S.
Next, proceed east on West 200S and then north on State Road 11.
You’ll be east of the railroad tracks already and can slide into downtown across the Robert N. Stewart Bridge.
Unless, of course, you get caught by a train at the intersection of County Road 200S and State Road 11. Then, you’re stuck again and all the extra miles of driving were for naught.
“There are two new trains coming through Columbus, and one of them has been passing through generally between 8:45 a.m. and 9:10 a.m.,” said Michael Stolzman, president of Louisville & Indiana Railroad.
The other additional train passes through Columbus in midafternoon.
The new trains are owned by CSX Transportation, which has the right to use L&I’s tracks that generally parallel Interstate 65 through Indiana from south to north.
Stolzman said the extra trains are hauling auto parts and finished Ford automobiles from Kentucky to Chicago.
Typically, three-fourths of the rail wagons passing through Columbus on the morning train carry finished autos, and the remaining boxcars are filled with auto parts.
With car sales nationally improving, the “trains are getting bigger and longer, and we’re running more tonnage,” Stolzman said. “Our volumes are up; and CSX’s volumes are up.”
Contributing to the local problem is that trains must travel through the State Road 46 intersection at no more than 10 mph for safety reasons, he said.
The slow passage is largely due to the condition of a 100-year-old truss bridge in Columbus that runs across Flat Rock River at Noblitt Park, not far from the congested State Road 46 crossing, Stolzman said. The aging bridge is out of date and can’t take much stress, he said.
Stolzman said he would like to run trains at speeds ranging from 25-30 mph through Columbus but can’t do that until the bridge is replaced.
The Louisville & Indiana and CSX railroads have a joint proposal to do just that under review by the federal Surface Transportation Board. Construction would not start until 2015, however.
The $90 million project, which Stolzman said appears to be on track to win approval by year’s end, would replace the bridge and upgrade the rest of L&I’s 106 miles of track between Louisville and Indianapolis.
In the meantime, Stolzman said the railroads are trying to reschedule trains to avoid peak rush-hour traffic tie-ups in Columbus.
He said L&I has been in touch with CSX Transportation’s scheduling division, and the railroads hope to resolve the Columbus problem soon.
“We’re trying to get the train out of that 8:45 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. time slot. But we also don’t want to just kick the problem down the track to Franklin or some other community,” Stolzman said.
Seymour, south of Columbus, also has experienced recent traffic snarls, although earlier on weekday mornings. Some officials there have said the afternoon train interferes with school bus routes.
The solution requires careful consideration because auto factories waiting for parts deliveries operate on a tight schedule and expect just-in-time deliveries so they don’t have to stockpile a lot of inventory on site.
“The destination-point customer determines when a train has to move,” Stolzman said. “If a delivery has been promised by noon the next day, there’s a series of deadlines to be met to achieve that goal.”
Laurence Brown, director of the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said that group’s policy board has indicated its concern and would like to explore raising the road over the rail line at some point to prevent congestion from getting any worse.
Brown acknowledged that would be “a long-term, expensive endeavor.” The Indiana Department of Transportation would have to fund the lion’s share of the project if it ever came to pass, he said.
Jim Abbott, a 78-year-old Columbus motorist also caught in traffic at the State Road 46 crossing on Monday, said he’s never too upset to be stalled by a passing train. If the train is loaded with new products and raw materials, it means the economy is doing better, he said.
“The auto business is what’s keeping this rail line running right now,” said Abbott, who retired from a predecessor company of ArvinMeritor, an auto parts maker.
“As long as the car and truck business is going strong, my pension is safe,” he said.
Beck, an idled motorist two car lengths in front of Abbott’s vehicle at the rail crossing, said she’s glad to hear the railroads are at least aware of the increased traffic jams and that they’re trying to fix things.
“Some mornings I’ve rearranged my schedule to beat the train; and I leave earlier. I’m very aware of it, and it’s frustrating to get stuck,” she said.
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