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Stopped trains prompt Frankfort officials to seek grant money for overpass

FRANKFORT, Ind. (WISH) -- Two companies that operate trains in Indiana have denied being aware of complaints related to extended, unpredictable train stops at crossings in Frankfort, a city in Clinton County approximately 50 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

CSX- and Norfolk Southern-operated trains stop, stall or unexpectedly move backwards on the tracks multiple times a day, creating traffic "headaches" and safety concerns, according to Frankfort residents and officials. 

"It's just horrendous," said Amie Mulvaney, a longtime Frankfort resident whose family lives less than half a mile from the train crossing near the three-way intersection of Rossville Avenue and Monon and Washington Streets. "You will pull up to this intersection and you will wait for hours." 

Within minutes of arriving for an interview with 24-Hour News 8, Mulvaney noticed an eastbound train approaching the crossing. She rolled her eyes and sighed as she watched it decelerate and come to a stop, blocking southbound traffic on Rossville Avenue and northbound traffic on both Monon and Washington Streets. 

"This is our life," Mulvaney said. "It's almost the [new] normal. You just have to learn to live with the way it rolls." 

Behind her, the train unexpectedly rolled backwards - westbound - in the direction it came from before slowing and stopping again. Mulvaney pointed out several vehicles approaching the crossing, which has no gate arms. She noted drivers often seize the opportunity to clear the intersection and brazenly speed across the tracks mere feet from the moving train, in case it reverses direction and blocks their path again.

Sherman Winski, whose scrap metal removal company is located several hundred yards south of the crossing, said he had seen the intersection "blocked [by trains] for two hours or more at a time."

He described it as an "unpleasant situation [they] learned to deal with" over time.

Chris McBarnes, the mayor of Frankfort, told 24-Hour News 8 he, too, was frustrated with issues caused by unpredictable train activity and added he had been fielding complaints from residents for years. 

"This is something we have battled since day one of being in office," said McBarnes, whose tenure as mayor began in 2012. "Without rail [companies and the economic opportunities they create], the city of Frankfort wouldn't be what it is today. But at the same time, it also created such headaches." 

The city has communicated with representatives for train operating companies about their ongoing traffic and safety concerns, he said. 

However, when reached for comment, representatives for CSX and Norfolk Southern - the two companies that operate trains in Frankfort - each claimed they had no knowledge of complaints, concerns or correspondence with local officials relating to train crossings. 

Jonathan Glass, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, emailed the following company statement to 24-Hour News 8:

"As far as we know, Norfolk Southern has not been contacted by city officials expressing concerns about our trains blocking crossings. Norfolk Southern has not had any significant changes in train traffic or operations in Frankfort, so there is no reason that crossings now are being more heavily impacted by trains. It would be highly unusual for a Norfolk Southern train to block any crossing in Frankfort for hours, unless there was a mechanical or safety issue that prevented us from moving the train. 

Norfolk Southern operates a rail yard just west of the crossing at Monon and Washington streets. As we build trains and switch cars in the yard, trains regularly pass through that crossing. However, these trains are moving, not stopped. We’re motivated for business reasons to keep these trains moving to ensure timely service to customers. Norfolk Southern serves several customers in Frankfort in an industrial area west of our yard. We ask residents to keep in mind that many of our trains moving through Frankfort serve the needs of industries there that rely on rail service and provide jobs and tax revenue that support the local economy. 

One thing to note: Norfolk Southern tracks run east-west through Frankfort. CSX has a rail line that runs north-south through Frankfort. The CSX line intersects the Norfolk Southern rail line just east of where Monon and Jackson streets meet. You can check with CSX to see if they have had increased train activity or operational changes that might be impacting crossings." 

Gail Lobin, a spokesperson for CSX, did not provide a company statement in response to questions about crossing activity in Frankfort. However, she stated in two phone calls the company had no record of complaints made by residents or city officials, and encouraged 24-Hour News 8 to investigate Norfolk Southern's involvement in the alleged train troubles. 

McBarnes called the "lack of accountability" disappointing and disrespectful.

"To say this is something they aren't aware of is simply a cop out," he told 24-Hour News 8 in a phone interview. "These individuals are smart individuals. They understand what's going on. To say they aren't aware of these situations is simply ludicrous." 

Finding a way around the tracks could prove to be a more effective solution than attempting to confront major corporations with municipal grievances and locally issued fines, according to McBarnes.

"Frankfort and Clinton County are actively researching and pursuing the possibility of utilizing the state's new 'Local Trax' [grant matching] program to potentially build an overpass in our community," he explained. "We have talked about the need for an overpass for years, but without funding assistance, a piece of infrastructure of this magnitude would almost be impossible for smaller communities to financially afford."

The mayor also called on state legislators and federal officials for assistance regulating troublesome - and potentially illegal - train activity, saying their current options often acted as nothing more than a "slap on the wrist" for companies that "essentially shut down crossings for extended periods of time."

"This isn't just a convenience issue," said McBarnes. "This is a safety issue."

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