Dr. Traffic

Risk-taking becoming more common in northwest Charlotte railroad corridor

CSX trains are a staple along railroad corridors near Rozzelles Ferry Road in northwest Charlotte. Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
CSX trains are a staple along railroad corridors near Rozzelles Ferry Road in northwest Charlotte. Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg Bloomberg

Three or four times a month lately, Michael Helms can count on a stopped train to hold up his commute for an hour or more at a railroad crossing near Rozzelles Ferry Road in northwest Charlotte.

The railroad still is king on this nostalgic corridor, which is flanked by some of the city’s older and most challenged neighborhoods.

But longer delays at crossings lead to greater frustration. Some pedestrians and bikers will wait only so long and then they take a risk, Helms said.

“Anytime a train is blocking the area for more than 20 or 30 minutes, people start to climb,” he said. “They climbed over the train.”

Helms has been commuting through the area for 16 years for his job at Armature Winding Co. He sometimes sees children standing between the train cars, passing bikes from one side to the other. He even has seen a baby passed over a train.

“A boy climbed up on the train – 20 something,” he said, describing the male. “His girlfriend or wife handed him the baby while she climbed down. It’s very common.”

Freight rail traffic is near an all-time high, the Federal Railroad Administration reports. Meanwhile, more than 431 people die each year nationally while trespassing in rail corridors, and nearly as many are injured, the administration reports.

Walking, standing or riding on railroad property is illegal and extremely dangerous, said Kristin Seay, a spokeswoman for CSX.

“We urge the public to stay far away from parked and moving trains as well as railroad tracks,” she said.

CSX’s terminal at 5430 Hovis Road is a busy link in a rail-to-truck and truck-to-rail freight network that moved more than 915,000 carloads of freight across the state in 2014 – food, automobiles, coal, chemicals and more. Now CSX is running longer trains to maximize resources and efficiency, Seay said.

Trains with as many as 100 cars stop at CSX’s terminal – 10 per day on average – and might block several crossings between Dupree Street and Fred D. Alexander Boulevard.

There’s a rhythm to the work of assembling trains, which is much like hitching a trailer to a truck. The trains often move forward a little, then back a bit – over and over again, Helms said.

Helms believes CSX can help make the area safer for pedestrians and improve traffic flow.

“They’ve got enough side track there that it would be very simple to break the train up,” Helms suggested.

CSX said the company is working to address these concerns even as it manages growth.

“Given the location of the Rozzelles Ferry crossing next to CSX’s rail yard and intermodal terminal, train traffic entering and exiting these facilities frequently results in blockages at this crossing,” Seay wrote in an email. “Our operating team is aware of this issue and we will continue to look for ways to reduce impacts on the community.”

Karen Sullivan: kmsulliv@charlotteobserver.com, @Sullivan_kms