USC junior Brittany Caldwell did what many people tried to do when they saw the stopped train along Assembly Street on Wednesday morning. She went around it. Way around it.
“It’s ridiculous,” said the chemical engineering student. “Thank goodness I didn’t have class.”
Most motorists have learned to navigate stopped or slowing trains along Columbia’s Assembly Street – or bring something along to read while they wait it out.
But this train remained stopped for an hour during one of the busiest times of the day – early morning rush-hour traffic.
The train, a CSX line of coal cars heading south, blocked three intersections in downtown Columbia – Assembly at Rosewood Drive, Assembly near Capital City Stadium, and Whaley Street at Lincoln Street, in Olympia. The train backed up traffic for miles and caused delays and late starts to ripple throughout Columbia’s business community.
Motorists shook their fists, and first responders, when they found out, shook their heads. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, meanwhile, said the city hopes to use money from the upcoming penny-on-the-dollar sales tax referendum to apply for previously elusive federal grants that could elevate some tracks in the increasingly busy part of town.
Some stuck motorists Wednesday weren’t as lucky as Caldwell. Their detour got them stuck in a second traffic jam on side streets that still took 30 minutes to navigate.
While all of that waiting can be infuriating for drivers, it’s concerning for first responders.
“That particular track can be an issue,” said Columbia-Richland Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, who also was stuck, though only briefly, in Wednesday’s traffic.
“Especially with responding to USC,” he said. “It all depends on which track the train is coming down. We can call for another unit if the train is stopped on the track and the truck can’t get through, or we can maneuver around it. But it would still be a delay in getting to that call.”
Delays in response time is a concern of Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott, as well.
Columbia’s officers learn about trains along their potential patrols as part of their orientation, Scott said.
“Whether it’s an emergency or regular call for service, it delays our response,” he said.
In addition to his officers being able to get to an emergency, Scott said he’s also concerned with people trying to beat the train or crawl over or under stopped cars.
After a lightning storm blew through the area during a USC baseball game last summer, fans were seen climbing between the cars of a stopped train to get to their cars on the other side. Football fans and fairgoers, too, clamber over the couplings by the dozens when they can’t get to where they want to go.
Caldwell said her brother warned her not to move to her Shop Road apartment, saying she would be fighting trains daily.
But she said even when she lived on campus and walked, she and her friends often ducked under the guardrails on South Main and ran like crazy to try to beat a train and be on time to class.
Scott said there’s nothing so important on the other side of the train to risk climbing over or under stopped cars.
“People should not take trains and their safety for granted,” he said.
Ordinances in many cities, including Columbia and Cayce, as well as state law, prohibit trains from blocking intersections for more than five minutes, though trying to get companies to comply with the law can be a futile effort.
Wednesday, Norfolk Southern officials said they were asked by CSX to move one of their trains from the switchyard just off Rosewood Drive so the CSX coal train could continue moving through the area.
“We were not told or had not been told that the train was coming,” said Norfolk Southern’s spokesman Robin Chapman.
“Local operations processing took longer than expected this morning,” CSX said in an email to The State newspaper. “... we apologize for the delay.”
Benjamin said trains in such a busy area affect both safety and quality of life.
He said the city again in is in the process of applying for federal assistance that could be used to build a flyover bridge for Assembly’s trains.
This time, though, Benjamin said, local match money may make the difference.
Relocating the Assembly Street tracks is on the list of projects the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax would cover, if voters approve the tax in November.
For off-campus students like Caldwell, who frequently use Assembly Street to get to both work and class, a fix can’t come soon enough.
“I’m super-frustrated,” she said. “It seems like you see trains continually stopped or stopped about once a week now.”
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.
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