It happens all over the country. Freight trains stop in the middle of crossings, blocking the way for drivers and pedestrians.
For many communities, it’s an inconvenience. But in one Southwest Atlanta neighborhood, residents believed it led to a man’s death.
Their battle over that crossing reveals the lingering power of railroads.
‘No other options’
There’s no train in the crossing the evening that Mindy Kao stands at the edge of Adair Park. One can see easily across the tracks to the West End MARTA station on the other side.
The view’s a little different if the crossing’s blocked.
“When a train is parked there, it looks like a wall of train cars,” Kao said.
Kao, a resident of the neighborhood, has watched trains stand here as often as once a week. Sometimes they park over the crossing for minutes. Other times, for hours.
“The longest I’ve seen it was for nearly three days, 60 hours,” Kao said. “From Friday night all the way ’til Sunday morning.”
She said for cars it may not be a big deal — drivers can just head to the next crossing. But a lot of people here walk. And the crossing stands between them and MARTA.
“They really have no other options, unless they’re willing to walk twenty minutes away to get to the nearest underpass,” Kao said.
So many cross here, anyway, by sliding through gaps in the train. That’s what 61-year-old Larry Seymour was doing this past summer when he died.
“At the very moment that he was crossing, under the couplings, in between the cars, the train started moving and his foot got caught,” Kao said.
The police report said Seymour was dragged underneath the train. Since the tracks are the property of Norfolk Southern, he was trespassing and responsible for his death.
For Kao and other residents, that was enough. Kao launched a petition and hundreds signed. They argued railroads can’t put people in these situations.
Or can they?
‘Truly a federal issue’
Another afternoon at the crossing, city and state officials address concerned neighbors. Patrick Allen with the Georgia Department of Transportation doesn’t have good news.
“We can’t do anything about blocked crossings. That’s completely under the purview of the railroad companies. We don’t regulate any operations of trains,” Allen said.
And they’re not allowed to either. The district’s City Councilmember Joyce Sheperd said she’s learned local governments have no power over railroad crossings.
“This is bigger than the city and it is bigger than the state. It’s truly a federal issue,” Sheperd said. “That’s what I’ve been told over and over and over again.”
That’s what other communities have been told too. Cities and states around the country have tried to crack down on blocked train crossings.
Texas, for example, passed a law limiting how long trains can park over roads. Federal courts shot it down.
“They get stuck like the trains are and not being able to do much about it,” said Tim Welch, a professor in the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech.
Railroads’ enduring power
Welch said federal policy has prevented local control of railroads since their heyday in the 1800s.
“The entire country ran on railroads. And so they felt like any kind of interaction by the state or local government to regulate those railroads would interfere with interstate commerce,” Welch said.
And that fear of interfering has persisted. Welch also said Atlanta specifically might avoid conflict with railroads because of the city’s history.
“Atlanta used to be called Terminus because this was the terminal point for multiple railroads,” Welch said. “And so it’s grown up around this idea that railroads are critical to south and to Georgia.”
But while the federal government bars cities and states from implementing rules about blocked crossings, it has also declined to create any rules of its own.
The Federal Railroad Administration simply encourages railroads to be “responsible corporate citizens.”
Welch expects it to stay that way, especially now that trains are getting more use.
“They’re becoming more critical again and as long as we’re transporting things like oil and gas, and as long as we have heavy materials that aren’t feasible by road, there’s probably not a lot of movement to change these regulations,” he said.
A solution for Adair Park
Norfolk Southern, which owns the railroad tracks in Southwest Atlanta, declined an interview. In a statement the company said trains do park over crossings infrequently, if there’s a backup, for example.
But since the public outcry, Norfolk Southern said it has instructed its crews not to block the Adair Park crossing.
After dealing with stopped trains for years, the community is cautiously optimistic. Some just wish it didn’t take a neighbor to die.
Mindy Kao said the death of Larry Seymour didn’t only make her sad.
“I was also really angry,” she said, “because it doesn’t need to happen, and it didn’t need to happen.”
Other areas on Atlanta’s westside are still grappling with regularly blocked crossings. Like in Adair Park, neighbors there said people walk between the train cars to get through.