Trains in Columbia making too much noise?
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was thinking about an old saying among politicians Wednesday morning:
“Trains have more power than God.”
And they were flexing it during the morning’s prime commuting time in downtown Columbia, when traffic was paralyzed for more than an hour on some of the city’s busiest streets.
Multiple trains reportedly blocked Whaley and Assembly streets and Rosewood Drive through about 9:30 a.m. A driver who had been the first one stuck in line at the Rosewood Drive and Assembly Street crossing said he had been at the intersection since 7:45 a.m.
The blockages resulted in a domino effect of traffic delays along a number of routes, including Huger and Blossom streets and Bluff Road.
Benjamin called the train tie-up “a damn shame” in a tweet.
“There’s just got to be a way – this is 2017 – to work with scheduling” among the CSX and Norfolk Southern train companies, Benjamin told The State newspaper. “We’ve always enjoyed a good relationship with them. ... But this scheduling issue has become a real major irritant to a lot of us over the past two years. So we have to address it.”
The city and the state both have laws limiting the amount of time trains can block street traffic. But those laws have no teeth and are rarely, if ever, enforced.
Spokespeople from Norfolk Southern and CSX attributed the delay to one train from each company leaving from their rail yards near the same time, causing both trains to come to a stop at downtown intersections.
“Usually the trains are scheduled so that they leave at separate times,” said Susan Terpay, Norfolk Southern spokeswoman. “This situation was an unusual, and we are working to make sure that it does not occur again. Norfolk Southern apologizes to the community for the delays and will work to avoid inconveniences in the future.“
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle echoed Terpay’s apology.
“We apologize for the inconvenience this caused morning commuters, and we are already working to improve communication and prevent that from happening again,” Doolittle said. “We look forward to continuing discussions with city and state leaders about how we can work together to support the safe and efficient flow of freight rail in Columbia.”
The city plans to meet with folks from those two freight lines, which have hubs in Columbia, and state transportation officials in December, Benjamin said.
“Trains are seeing a bit of renaissance, and I’m sure it’s good for the companies and good for the country,” Benjamin said. “But those companies need to be a lot more sensitive to the needs of cities trying to move people and products.”
It’s a major quality of life issue for a growing city, he added.
In the past, Columbia officials have asked the State Infrastructure Bank for money to help move train tracks to a flyover bridge over Assembly Street. It’s a project that could cost more than $100 million.
The city’s request was denied by the infrastructure bank. City officials might consider reapplying, Benjamin said.
The city also failed to get railroad fixes on a list of transportation sales tax projects Richland County voters approved several years ago.
Earlier this year, Columbia officials made plans to update an old study looking at possibilities for relocating or consolidating train tracks on Assembly Street.
The city also recently assembled a committee to consider establishing “quiet zones” to keep trains from sounding their horns at every street crossing. That committee is slated to meet for the first time Dec. 4, Benjamin said.
Staff writers Cynthia Roldán and Susan Ardis contributed.
Reporter’s note: This story has been updated to reflect comments issued by CSX and Norfolk Southern officials.