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Stopped in their tracks: Parked Norfolk Southern trains delay first responders

At a Juliette crossing, Monroe County’s sheriff says deputies need to take a 35-minute detour.

JULIETTE, Ga. — When you get in a car accident, you expect first responders to provide life-saving care.

But what if they can’t get to you without a 35-minute detour?

That’s what happened in July 2021 when a stopped train blocked a railroad crossing in Juliette, Monroe County.

It’s the same crossing that’s caught the eye of Senator Jon Ossoff in an inquiry to the Federal Railroad Administration.

13 Investigates’ Ashlyn Webb took a closer look at the track that’s gone from a headache to a public-safety problem for folks in Juliette.

About 10:30 on the morning of July 30, 2021, Monroe County deputies responded to an accident near the railroad tracks on Juliette Road.

According to dispatch records, a 73-year-old woman was unconscious after another driver hit her truck. The driver told officers he was under the influence of meth.

But first responders couldn’t get to the scene. A Norfolk Southern train blocked the crossing.

“We constantly called Norfolk Southern, asked them to move the train,” said Sheriff Brad Freeman. “They gave excuses on why they couldn't move the train.”

Freeman says deputies would have to take a 35-minute detour around the blocked crossing.

“That's a long time,” the sheriff said. “Evidence can be destroyed. Suspects can disappear. And as far as the EMS side, you're looking at you know, the golden hour, where you can get a trauma patient to the hospital and possibly save their life.

“Well .if it's taking you 35 minutes to get to the scene,” Freeman said, “it can be bad.”

While deputies tried to cross, their office asked neighboring Jones County to respond. But their crews were also 30 minutes away.

So, first responders slid the 73-year-old under a train car on a gurney so she could get medical help.

“It's scary and disturbing,” said Andrea Goolsby, who lives in Juliette

“The fact that I have a child, he and myself both spend so much time on the river.. if something were to happen across those tracks. Who's going to get to us to help us?” Goolsby said. “It's a safety issue. There are people that live on the other side of the tracks that are medically fragile… some terminally ill and having to go 20 miles out of their way. That could be life or death.”

The Federal Railroad Administration says since June 2020, they’ve received at least 92 reports of Juliette Road being blocked.

But people in Juliette say they don’t report most of those cases to the feds. They say the crossing gets blocked weekly, sometimes daily, for up to six hours.

Our crew was there when it happened on Labor Day.

“Move this train,” Goolsby said on the other side of the tracks.

It’s not illegal for a train to block a crossing, even for hours. The Federal Railroad Administration says there are no federal rules against it, and there’s no Georgia law. But some states, like Washington, Iowa, Illinois, and Oklahoma, ban trains from blocking crossings for more than 10 minutes. Other states like Alabama have considered laws.

Freeman says with safety concerns mounting, they’ve reached out to Norfolk Southern asking for them to fix the problem.

“Basically, they were less than polite. Basically informed me that there was nothing I could do and nothing they would do about it,” Freeman said.

13 WMAZ’s Ashlyn Webb asked the sheriff, “Do you feel like you're being railroaded? Do you feel like the city of Juliette is being railroaded in this?”

“I feel the railroad just has an I-don't-care attitude,” Freeman said. “It's like, you know, obviously the railroad is a corporation. You can't vote for them. You can't boot them out of office and they're going to do what they want to do… and basically dare you to do anything to them.”

In a written response, Norfolk Southern said they could not move the train on July 30, 2021, because it broke down and needed repairs.

But that’s not always the case when the Juliette crossing is blocked.

The railroad says trains stop at a siding near the crossing when crews take “mandated rest times.” The company says they’re stopping even more in the last year due to staffing problems. They say they’re working to hire more crews.

The Federal Railroad Administration says the new infrastructure law passed by Congress in November included the Railroad Crossing Elimination Program. It will fund projects like creating overpasses and underpasses as well as moving some tracks.

Full Statement from Norfolk Southern to 13 WMAZ:

First, the Juliette Rd crossing sits within a siding - a critical element of the railroad that allows trains to ‘meet’ or pass each other. Without the ability to pass, train traffic would become completely gridlocked. Trains have to occupy these sidings for different amounts of time depending on a number of factors, such as schedule, crew time (like airline crews, regulation governs the amount of time a train crew may operate a train), or mechanical issues. 

Over the last year, we’ve experience a number of challenges that have impacted our ability to keep our trains moving as fluid as they can, including staffing issues, that have made some of these delays worse. We’ve been hiring conductor trainees, offering bonuses and pay raises to attract candidates, and have high numbers of trainees in our pipeline. Our network will continue to see improvement as these trainees complete training and enter service. 

Specific to the issue you are referencing from last summer, a train experienced a breakdown at that crossing. Once it was repaired, traffic had to be cleared ahead. We were notified by local 911 that an incident was happening, and we began to work to get the train moved. We were in constant communication with first responders, and we worked with them to stop and hold traffic there when EMS needed to transport the patient. Our Police Communications Center is staffed 24/7/365 and ready to work with first responders in case of emergency. 

Regardless, we never want to inconvenience any community with a stopped train. Trains do have to stop at times for a number of reasons, like mechanical issues or mandated rest time. Our crews work hard to keep trains moving, and whenever they do have to stop, to minimize how long they are stopped. Outside of daily operations, we also work to keep open lines of communication with communities that are seeing specific issues, and to work with local leaders to find long-term solutions. 


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