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Train Troubles: Safety concerns grow as trains block traffic in Georgia

Last year complaints about stalled trains jumped 259% in Georgia.

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Frustration is mounting in Dekalb County over trains sitting on the tracks blocking crossings sometimes for days.

It’s more than an inconvenience, public officials said it’s also a safety hazard. And, Dekalb isn’t the only place in Georgia it’s happening.

Getting stuck behind a freight train is inevitable. After all, Georgia has the largest rail network in the southeast. But imagine getting stuck on the road because that freight train isn’t moving. 

People in Lithonia don’t have to imagine.

“I’ve sat for 45 minutes before and then I make a U-turn and leave,” Steven Barrett said. 

“It’s not something you can plan for," resident Remington Bayley said. "It’s like our daily traffic out here.”

PUSHING FOR CHANGES

Hundreds of people signed a petition on change.org saying CSX trains will sit on the tracks, blocking traffic, for days at a time. Lithonia’s Mayor Shameka Reynolds said it’s been a problem for nearly a year.

Credit: Kristin Crowley

“Today they have it opened up and we’re grateful for that,” Reynolds said pointing to the tracks, showing two rows of train cars on either side. “But nine times out of 10, it’s mostly connected and we have to go a different route.”

When the trains are connected, Reynolds said it blocks people from accessing resources like grocery stores and can keep police from using the most direct route to an emergency. 

RELATED: Train stalled on tracks in Marietta for hours

A resident also sent The Reveal cell phone video showing a student climbing through the train to get to school. 

A BIGGER PROBLEM

The Reveal discovered this problem is not unique to Lithonia.

“We used to have an average of a 3-and-a-half to 4-minute response time," said Mike Russell, deputy chief of the Dalton Fire Department. "It really just adds another response time to a call."

The city of Dalton is 100 miles away from Lithonia. Unlike Lithonia, trains blocking the tracks happens seldom, Russell said. But it happens enough where firefighters need to know how to adjust on the fly during an emergency.

“If an engine gets stuck by a train, they will just radio the other engines and they’ll go another way and get there before they will,” he said.

Credit: Kristin Crowley

Russell said he does not know of a delay from a train that cost someone their life in an emergency, but he’s concerned. Cities all over the state have issues with trains at a standstill and the problem is growing.

The federal government set up a website where people can report problems with sitting trains. 

Georgia saw 131 total train complaints in 2002. Last year, complaints jumped up 259%, according to federal data. So far this year, there are 69 reports, which is seven times higher than last year at the same time.

RELATED: Officials: Train derails in Bartow County

Thirty-seven states have laws limiting how long trains can sit on the tracks.

Georgia isn’t one of them.

We asked CSX why some of its trains are blocking traffic in Lithonia and elsewhere. It responded with this statement:

 “CSX strives to limit the impact of rail operations on the communities where we operate and understand that stopped trains can be an inconvenience for our neighbors. There are times when mechanical and operational conditions could result in blocked crossings, as well as when trains stop for mandatory safety inspections or federally regulated crew changes. We apologize for any disruptions caused to Lithonia residents and appreciate the city’s patience as we work hard to serve north Georgia communities as safely and efficiently as possible.”

In 2019, a bill was proposed in Georgia to make it illegal for trains to block crossings for more than 15 minutes. That bill stalled.

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