Stopped trains repeatedly hold residents in Georgia town hostage

Published: May. 17, 2023 at 10:43 PM EDT
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ROCKY FORD, Ga. (WTOC) - A blocked railroad crossing is holding residents in one Georgia town hostage, and it’s not a new problem. Those residents recently reached a breaking point, when a train was parked right in the heart of their town, for an entire day.

Rocky Ford residents say they’ve had enough. They say Norfolk Southern’s trains regularly split their town in half. It’s an issue our national investigative team recently shed light on.

We traveled up to Rocky Ford to check it out for ourselves. On this particular afternoon, the town of Rocky Ford is even quieter than usual.

Flashing lights and parked cars tell an all-too-familiar story for people around here.

A Norfolk Southern train split the town of Rocky Ford in half for nearly 24 hours earlier this month forcing residents, to wait it out.

Locals say it’s an extreme case - of a regular occurrence.

“I’m off main street! Right next to this train track that stays there 2-3 hours at a time,” said Rocky Ford resident Beulah Budgett.

Beulah Budgett runs a cafe and a gas station in town. She says the train blockage has been a problem for years but it’s gotten worse.

She says it’s crushing business and more.

“My business is suffering. My church suffers on Sunday mornings when it’s there and people have to cross the track,” said Budgett.

But that’s not all.

Budgett said, “the school bus comes through, and they have to sit and wait for hours for the kids.”

We watched as this bus pulled up, dropped kids off, and waited.

Resident Aidan Peters says Rocky Ford residents feel powerless.

“Obviously, the train tracks split Rocky Ford into two. So it’s kind of frustrating when you live one house down and you can’t even get to your own house,” said Peters.

The company did put up this sign, with a number to call if a train is blocking a crossing for more than 15 minutes.

But Peters says, it’s useless.

“They say the same thing over again: ‘we’re working on it, we’re working on it, we’re working on it.’ That’s all we get.”

These residents tell us it’s time for a change.

They say if these trains are going to derail their way of life, they’d at least like to know why and how long there wait will be this time.

“A little more communication would be key in helping the citizens of Rocky Ford know what to expect,” said Peters.

WTOC contacted Norfolk Southern for comment and was provided the following statement:

“First and foremost, I understand that the conditions affecting this particular crossing have largely been improving. I want to be clear though, Norfolk Southern never wants to inconvenience a member of a community with a stopped train. This crossing exists within a railroad siding, which is an integral part of the railroad network that allows a train to pull into it for another train to pass. Without these, the railroad simply could not function. Our teams work hard to minimize the time trains have to spend in the siding while others pass, and we also have instructions for trains to be separated at this crossing when they will be there for an extended period of time, whenever possible. We’ll remain engaged with this community on this crossing in particular.

Lastly, the issue may have temporarily worsened over the last few weeks while we implemented some changes to train marshaling rules. As those changes fully integrate into the network, as they have been, we expect service to continue to improve and these conditions to continue to improve.”

Rocky Ford’s Mayor, Ken Mock, gave us a statement:

“The local government in Rocky Ford maintains a great open line of communication between Norfolk Southern representatives and its Municipality. We strive to keep both parties interest in mind when issues come up between the respective entities. A train blockage of the Railroad crossing, which is located in the center of Rocky Ford results in citizens, school buses, emergency vehicles, and any daily commuters being cut off with zero access to the opposite side of the town with no alternate crossing to go around the blockade within the city limits. Our citizens and travelers have been patient over the years to allow 15 to 30 minutes in delays while train conductors split the train to permit the re opening of the crossing and also allow for secondary trains to pass along the main line track. Any delays beyond this timeframe has lead to kids missing school, loss of revenue within the town, along with daily commuters unable to meet job timeframe requirements. We look forward in working with Norfolk Southern to resolve this increasing issue and still maintain both parties interest.”

Our national Investigative Team found that right now, there are no federal laws against these types of extended train blockages. And, due to federal court rulings, state-imposed “anti-blocking” laws are essentially powerless. But a group of state Attorney Generals are challenging those rulings... in hopes of having the Supreme Court overturn them. Of course, these delays can be a MAJOR issue for first-responders, too.

Members of Congress are also working to intervene with the “Don’t Block Our Communities Act.” It would ban blocking for more than 10 minutes and allow the Federal Railroad Administration to fine rail carriers who disobey. It would also mandate the use of defect detection technology…change regulations on transporting hazardous materials… improve railcar inspections … and increases penalties for safety violations.

The act now heads the U.S. Senate for a full vote.