West Newton neighborhood works to avoid being cut off
A group of West Newton residents hopes borough officials can devise a plan with CSX Corp. to prevent a repeat of a September incident when the only road into their neighborhood was cut off for 10 hours as a freight train accident blocked a railroad crossing.
“We were cut off from everybody else. It was an absolute nightmare. It was just horrible,” said Patricia Hesson of Mallard Street, where about 14 homes are sandwiched between the Youghiogheny River and the railroad tracks.
Borough officials and Mallard Street residents are scheduled to meet with CSX representatives at the railroad crossing off South Fifth Street on Nov. 11 to walk the area and look for a solution, Mayor Mary Popovich said.
“We have to have a plan to put in place … in the borough’s emergency plan,” Popovich said.
Mallard Street residents are looking for some protocol so that the lone railroad crossing into the neighborhood wouldn’t be blocked for a long time period, said Lynn Hoak, who served as a spokeswoman for a dozen residents who went to council last month seeking a solution.
“I don’t think it will be a hard issue to resolve,” Popovich said.
Paul Williams, the borough’s emergency management director, said officials will ask if a temporary railroad crossing can be put in place in an emergency. Williams didn’t know if the borough has any property in that neighborhood that could be used.
Hoak said she wasn’t certain a temporary crossing is a viable solution because it could be blocked along with the Mallard Street crossing.
CSX will work with the borough to look at ways to address the problem, spokesman Robert Doolittle said.
On Sept. 26, a freight train struck a pickup truck at the East Main Street crossing, about a half-mile north, and blocked the Mallard crossing.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s official report of the accident said the train hit a disabled truck on the tracks at 4:24 a.m. A coal train hit the truck at 4:05 a.m. and continued on its route, but CSX stopped all rail traffic on the main line until the second train could be inspected.
At 5:30 a.m., CSX said the track would remain closed for several hours, according to the report.
When the crossing was blocked, some residents missed work while others resorted to walking over the railcar couplings between the freight cars, Hesson said.
Hoak and Hesson were concerned that a fire truck or ambulance wouldn’t be able to access the neighborhood.
West Newton fire Chief Craig Sanner couldn’t be reached for comment.
Under federal regulations, a railroad operator “can’t move any of the equipment until the accident investigation is completed,” said Michael Booth, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees railroad operations.
Borough police said the accident investigation was completed early on the morning of Sept. 26.
CSX moved the train a short distance, but not off the Mallard Street crossing, Hoak said.
Doolittle said he didn’t have specific information about the accident, but he was certain the train was moved as soon as it was safe to do so. The railroad is committed to moving its trains as soon as possible, Doolittle said.
The Federal Railroad Administration has no regulations limiting how long a crossing can be blocked in times of an emergency or accident, Booth said.
When residents questioned why the borough couldn’t pass an ordinance prohibiting prolonged blocking of the railroad crossing, solicitor Charles Wade said the federal government has jurisdiction.
“States and towns can pass laws (regulating railroad crossings), as long as they don’t pre-empt federal law,” Booth said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or [email protected].