Since the school year began this month, there have been no reports of what was once a common sight in Hammond, Indiana: children, climbing over or under idling trains, risking their lives to get to class. Local officials say this is thanks to reforms enacted in response to an investigation by ProPublica and InvestigateTV.
Norfolk Southern, whose trains routinely stretched across multiple intersections, halting traffic and preventing pedestrians from crossing, committed to stopping its trains east of the Chicago suburb and splitting any that blocked crossings for more than 40 minutes. It also pledged to issue email alerts to help school, fire and police officials work around disruptions.
The company made an even larger commitment it has yet to follow through on, according to Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.: helping fund a pedestrian overpass.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw called McDermott the day after the investigation was published to begin discussing a fix, the mayor said, adding that he and Shaw discussed the pedestrian bridge and its potential cost during the conversation. McDermott hoped it would only take a month or two before he could announce the overpass.
Notes from the Federal Railroad Administration taken during meetings between city officials and Norfolk Southern show that there was at some point a plan for the rail company and the city to release a joint announcement for the beginning of the school year.
But the company has not confirmed it will pay any portion of the estimated $5 million overpass.
“We have been in communication with Norfolk Southern and are looking forward to Norfolk Southern confirming their funding that we discussed so this can be built,” McDermott said. “It’s the only way that 10 or 20 years down the road, I will know that a permanent long-term solution fixed this 100-year-old problem in my city. This needs to get done.”
He said he was pleased about the improvements from the “short-term” fixes implemented thus far but added, “That doesn’t go far enough.”
In hopes of an agreement, city engineers and a Norfolk Southern design team are working together on specifications for a potential bridge, city officials said.
A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern did not answer any of ProPublica’s questions, saying only that the company hadn’t received recent reports of stopped trains and that officials continue to talk with McDermott.
“I will say the train [officials] seem earnest to work with us,” said Scott E. Miller, the superintendent of Hammond schools. “But my biggest concern is, this isn’t the first time we’ve had conversations like this, and two years from now, where are we going to be?”
The superintendent lauded the company for making the short-term changes and for continuing to participate in monthly meetings with community leaders, but he said he was eager for the company to put longer-term solutions in writing.
“It’s about the safety of the kids,” he said.
In reaction to comments made by McDermott, Miller and others about the need for a longer-term fix like a bridge, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said: “We’re proud of the collaboration between the Norfolk Southern team and local leaders to improve safety in Hammond. Since crafting a solution together, there have been no blocked crossings in the area, and we’re committed to continuing that.”
Since classes started on Aug. 14, Akicia Henderson and her two children have not had to climb over the train like in the past to get to the elementary school, she said. “It came yesterday while I was picking my daughters up, but it didn’t stop. It kept going, and I was happy about that.”
Blocked crossings, an age-old problem perpetuated by all rail companies, have gotten more attention in recent years as communities complain about trains getting longer and blocking more crossings for increasing periods of time.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., cited ProPublica and InvestigateTV’s reporting in May when he announced the Senate Commerce Committee’s passing of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act. Warnock inserted provisions into the legislation that would make it easier for communities to access grant money to build bridges over or tunnels under railroad tracks that are routinely blocked; the legislation would also create a process for communities to report blocked crossings directly to railroad companies and not just the government.
The day after the Senate committee passed the Railway Safety Act, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, read the blocked crossings investigation into the congressional record. The bill’s momentum has stalled since May.
Kenny Edwards, the Indiana legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART Union, said he was happy the temporary fixes were having a positive impact thus far in Hammond, but he described the moves as “putting a Band-Aid on a cancer.” Elected officials and community members have to continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable or the company will gradually slip back into its old behavior and continue blocking Hammond’s crossings, he said.
“They’ll wait till those images of those children and the trains fade out of people’s memories,” he said. “They’re the masters of that.”
Indiana state Rep. Carolyn Jackson, a Democrat who represents the Hammond area, has filed a bill attempting to address blocked crossings every session for the past five years. None has ever gotten a hearing. Jackson said Norfolk Southern has known about the critical situation in Hammond for decades and the company has dodged efforts to fix the issue for just as long.
She had hoped that by the start of the school year, an agreement and long-term plan would have been in place.
“I understand that they have given their word that they would move [the train] east, and they would do this and they will do that,” Jackson said. “However, I can’t say that I really trust that.”
She said the company has a history of making idle promises and skirting the blame for its behavior. The lawmaker said it shouldn’t take four months for the company to agree on an amount to kick in for the overpass, which has been needed for more than 20 years. It feels like the company is trying to wait the community out, she said.
Jackson and Edwards both said that while there’s a chance the urgency of the issue could get forgotten, they believe the images of children having to crawl under and over trains to get to school will stick with officials and members of the public, who will continue to hold the company accountable.
Jackson said she was encouraged to hear that there haven’t been any issues in the first two weeks of the school year, but the sample size is too small to wave a victory flag.
“It just doesn’t take long for a person or a company to resort back to their same ugly ways,” she said. “You can only keep up a front for so long.”
Henderson said it’s sad that her children and their classmates have to begin the school year without a commitment from the railroad or the city that a permanent fix is coming — but it’s not surprising.
“This has been going on forever, so what makes me think that we’re special and that they are finally going to do something?” she said. “Honestly, I’m not really expecting anything to be done. All I can do is pray that [the train] doesn’t sit there.”
Her thoughts on the overpass: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”