ASSOCIATED PRESS, JOSH FUNK
With the rail industry relying on longer and longer trains to cut costs, the Biden administration is handing out $570 million in grants to help eliminate many railroad crossings in 32 states, including Virginia.
The grants announced Monday will contribute to the construction of bridges or underpasses at the sites of more than three dozen crossings that delay traffic and sometimes keep first responders from places where help is desperately needed.
In some places, trains routinely stretching more than 2 miles long can block crossings for hours, cutting off access to parts of towns and forcing pedestrians to attempt the dangerous act of climbing through trains that could start moving without warning.
“We see countless stories of people unable to get to work on time, goods being blocked from getting where they need to be and first responders being delayed by these these trains that can be slowed or stopped — even seeing images of children having to crawl between or under freight trains in order to get to school,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.
In one case Buttigieg mentioned, a Texas mom called 911 because her 3-month-old baby was in distress, but an idle train kept the ambulance from getting there quickly and the baby died at the hospital two days later.
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, announced Monday that one of the grants will send $3.2 million to Virginia for safety improvements at four CSX-owned crossings: Doswell Road and Elmont Road in Hanover County, Brent Point Road in Stafford County and Summit Crossing Road in Spotsylvania County.
Crossings will not be eliminated fully at those locations, which are two-lane local roads in rural areas. Instead, new four-quadrant gates — blocking both lanes on either side of the tracks — will be installed to prevent cars from driving around existing barriers and risking collisions with trains.
“This project follows through on the bipartisan infrastructure law’s promises of stronger physical infrastructure, improved safety, and responsible investments in our local communities,” Spanberger said in a statement. “By making our communities safer, we are ensuring that Virginia remains the best place in the country to live, work, and raise a family.”
Roughly 2,000 collisions are reported at railroad crossings every year, with nearly 250 deaths recorded last year in car-train crashes. In one instance Buttigieg cited, a woman in California wound up stopped on the tracks after traffic backed up and she was killed when a train slammed into her vehicle.
Records from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles show that there were five car crashes involving trains in the Richmond area in 2022: one in Chesterfield County, and two each in Hanover and Henrico counties. No one was injured or killed in any of the collisions, and neither of the Hanover crashes happened at the sites slated to receive federal funds.
These grants are part of $3 billion in funding approved in the $1 trillion infrastructure law for these rail crossing projects that will be doled out over the next five years. The money that goes to improvements in Hanover will be the third federal grant under the infrastructure bill for projects in the Richmond area, after an $18.4 million grant announced in August 2022 to revamp the bridge that carries Arthur Ashe Boulevard over train tracks and a $1.35 million grant in February 2023 for improvements in the city’s historic Jackson Ward neighborhood.
Some of the 63 projects that will receive grants involve only planning and design work for eliminating crossings in the future, but most of the money will go toward physical improvements at crossings and the elimination of longstanding problems.
In each of these grants, states and cities must cover at least 20% of the project costs, sometimes with the help of the railroads. The $3.2 million for Virginia improvements will be matched by $800,000 from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation — as part of the department’s DC2RVA initiative to improve rail capacity between Washington D.C. and Richmond — as well as $25,000 each from Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and $100,000 from Hanover.
The major freight railroads have overhauled their operations in recent years to rely on fewer, longer trains, so they can use fewer crews and locomotives as part of efforts to cut costs.
The railroads insist those changes have not made their trains riskier, but regulators and Congress are scrutinizing their operations closely after several recent, high-profile derailments. And the problems at rail crossings are well documented.
According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration, there are 223 street-level railroad crossings in Richmond, Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico. Two-thirds of those crossings are on public roads.