Earlier this week, one of the topics that I discussed in my State of the City address was the impact of railroad trains in our city. Let’s take a closer look at freight rail traffic as it passes through our community.
Shipping logistics are getting more sophisticated. Modern freight transportation is becoming more multimodal, utilizing both truck and rail to reach intended destinations. This has led to greater efficiencies in logistics but has also increased train traffic.
The Norfolk Southern line runs north and south through Warsaw. It gets to Chicago via the east-west line in Elkhart.  NS northbound trains often have to stop to allow cross traffic from this and other lines to clear. NS directly admits the problem of stoppage throughout our community is most often the result of backup from “chronic congestion in the Chicago system.”
This has caused unacceptable blockage at vehicular crossings, often times for up to several hours. The law says that any blockage longer than 10 minutes requires uncoupling to relieve the obstruction.  The difficulty with enforcement is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say, it has been a real concern.
NS recently visited communities along the CF&E line, the east-west track that runs through Warsaw. NS has “trackage rights” on the CF&E line, and later this spring intends to run up to six new trains per day. It also has a limit of no more than 18 new trains per week. The tracks are currently being upgraded so these trains will have the capability to run up to 40 miles per hour on this line.
This “rerouting” is designed to relieve heavy traffic on the east-west line in Elkhart. That, in turn, also should lessen traffic and delays on the north-south line that runs through Warsaw.
Safety concerns with this increase in train traffic have our attention and are being addressed by NS. In 2013, the city petitioned the INDOT rail office to upgrade the Pope Street, Market Street, and Winona Avenue crossings with crossing gates. We were awarded just under $1 million, and the project was to begin in 2015.
Last month we were notified that the project was being delayed because INDOT wants to expand the project to also include the crossings at Center, Main, Fort Wayne, Arthur and Lyon streets.  The result will be a more comprehensive safety solution with more efficient signalization. Engineering will occur this year with construction following in 2016.
Historically, these two railroads were lifelines that our city grew and developed around. The local tracks were built in 1856 (east-west) and 1870 (north-south).  The benefits of both passenger and freight transportation were critical to the growth of our city. The railroad company owns the tracks and the right of way. They are federally regulated. The city has no control over the operations of the railroad. It is critical, however, that we work with the railroad to protect our interests.
The railroad has a responsibility for the safety of our citizens and has demonstrated their concern with the improvements described above. It also has a responsibility to minimize the disruption of vehicular traffic flow and delivery of emergency services. Meeting those goals requires cooperation of both the city and the railroad.
A recent meeting with representatives of the INDOT rail office and NS presented us the opportunity to open the discussion for a long-term solution of those issues of safety and vehicular traffic flow. Our newly adopted comprehensive plan includes a recommendation for a grade separation (overpass or underpass) to reduce the isolation when north-south trains pass. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the frustration we have all experienced. The east-west tracks have four grade separations at Argonne Road, McKinley Street, Columbia Street and Hand Avenue. The only north-south relief is the overpass on U.S. 30.
This has been a longstanding concern in our community, and it will require in-depth preliminary engineering to determine viable sites and whether an overpass or underpass is most appropriate.  Funds will have to be identified to complete the project. This will be a long project. We were promised a site visit by NS engineers this spring to explore the railroad’s initial reaction to the project. Stay tuned!