Written by By Dermot Connolly
The village of Evergreen Park and the city of Chicago have taken legal action against CSX Transportation, Inc., seeking sanctions against the railroad company for repeatedly blocking grade crossings – the intersections of railway lines and roads -- along the Elsdon railroad line in violation of federally imposed requirements.
“The little guys need a voice. I guess it is time for us to speak up,” said Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton on Monday, during a meeting with Chicago Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th), and state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), as well as a couple of 19th Ward residents who live between the heavily used railroad crossings on the Elsdon Line at 103rd and 111th Streets on Sacramento Avenue in the city.
Five railroad crossing pass through Evergreen Park too, including two close by, at 94th and Kedzie and 95th and Sacramento, where trains can tie up traffic on two major roads at the same time.
The group met to discuss the issue with attorneys from Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell in Washington, D.C., who have been enlisted to file a formal petition with the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that reviews proposed railroad mergers and resolves railroad rate and service disputes, in order to remedy the serious harmful effects created by CSX’s operations along the Elsdon Line.
The petition filed Monday seeks a number of potential remedies, including the imposition of sanctions, including fines; continued monitoring; and additional auditing.
All the politicians and the residents agreed that CSX is not living up to the commitments it made when it was allowed to take over the Elsdon Line in 2013.
Burke pointed out that CSX promised in 2013 that trains would pass through the area without stopping and blocking intersections, but that has not been the case.
The attorneys involved, Allison Fultz and Chuck Spitulnik, thanked the Evergreen Park police for documenting the number of blockages, sometimes100 a year, that have caused problems in the village.
“Typically, there are a lot of anecdotal evidence and vague complaints. For a community to be very specific, and detailed, is a rare opportunity for us,” said Fultz.
The residents, John Jacob and Colette Wagner, have also filmed instances where trains block intersections for so long that children on their way to school have climbed over and under the stopped trains, risking serious injury if they started moving.
Another major concern raised is the possibility of lives being put in danger if ambulances are stopped by trains on 95th Street, heading to Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park or Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
Jacob also pointed to asthma and other health issues caused by residents breathing diesel fumes for extended periods of time as well.
For their part, CSX officials have stated that they have improved the infrastructure on the line since taking over.
Burke and Cunningham said they tried to address the issue at the state level, but courts found that municipalities could not fine railroads so the decision was made to take it to the federal level. State Rep. Fran Hurley (D-35th), who wasn’t at the meeting, was also credited with trying to find a solution in Springfield.
“Ever since CSX secured the right to operate on this track, residents have told us that trains along the Elsdon Line routinely cause lengthy delays that not only inconvenience residents but threaten public safety by blocking access to area hospitals,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement.
“For the past three years, we have tried to work cooperatively with CSX to address the many public safety and quality of life issues their takeover of the Elsdon line created for our community,” said O’Shea. “Unfortunately, we have very little to show for that effort and are now forced to take more serious action.”
"For too long, CSX has ignored their own promises to operate a safe and efficient rail line in our community," said Cunningham, describing their statements as “demonstrably false.”
A legal review of CSX’s quarterly reports indicates that the railroad has admitted that it has not fully complied with the 2013 requirements as a condition of its receiving approval to operate on this line. In fact, the railroad has cut only one train over the past three years.
Precedent exists for the Board to impose significant penalties on CSX. For instance, in a 2007 case against Canadian National Railroad in connection with its operations in the Chicago area, STB fined the railroad $250,000 for violating obligations similar to those binding CSX.
“We have fired the opening salvo,” said Fultz, regarding the complaint filed with the Surface Transportation Board on Monday.
CSX now has 21 days to respond.
But Fultz said that it will likely be months before there is any resolution.
“If CSX would just comply with what they agreed to in 2013, we would be in great shape,” she said.
But the officials said that if there is no accommodation made, fines amounting to millions of dollars could be assessed.