EATON – On Wednesday, June 30, several county and township officials joined Preble County Commissioners for a public discussion related to the impact of Norfolk Southern Railroad’s requests to add two sidings in the south side of Jackson Township and subsequently closing several railroad crossings in the area.
According to Commission President Rachael Vonderhaar, commissioners invited individuals who would be able to provide insight into the impact the project would have on services and the access to National Trail Schools.
Those present included Eaton Fire and EMS Chief Brian Smith, Preble County EMA Director Dave Anderson, Preble County Engineer Chief Deputy Tony McWhinney, Sheriff Mike Simpson, National Trail School Transportation Safety Director John Toschlog, Preble County Land Use Management Director Brad Kramer, Jackson Township Fiscal Officer Kim Dees, and Jackson Township Trustees Dean Petry, Jim Newton and Josh Ruebush.
Vonderhaar began by noting that during a recent meeting, officials with Norfolk-Southern Railroad voiced their intentions to close crossings at Daily Road, Oxford-Gettysburg Road and Conley Road.
“They would like to close Toby Road also, but apparently they’re being generous,” Vonderhaar said. “With that, we need to understand the full impact to the community and what it does to our services that respond to that area.”
Kramer pointed out the affected areas on a map for those present.
“For the railroad, they see this as the answer for their crews timing out between Chicago and Cincinnati, which is why they’re currently spending so much time blocking the crossings in Campbellstown,” Vonderhaar said. “This is how they’re trying to problem solve their issues. When they get to 11 hours and 59 minutes on a shift, no matter where that train is parked, they get out, they put a padlock on it and they wait for the next crew to show up and take off with it. That’s just part of the union rules.”
She continued: “We need to understand the full needs of the area, and the use of those roads that they’re discussing closing down. They intend to start their project in the second quarter of 2022. So now is our time to gather information as quickly as possible.”
Vonderhaar reported the railroad representatives wished to be invited to future public meetings to discuss the projects. She noted, the needs of the farmers and other residents in the area need to be understood, as well as those of Lakengren residents who use those roads to access New Paris and Richmond, IN.
Sheriff Simpson said he had been working with Congressman Warren Davidson’s office for the past two years regarding complaints from residents of Campbellstown about the trains blocking the roadways.
When a train stops there, he noted, there are at least three crossings blocked.
“We respond to calls out there when the residents call when the trains are blocked, and there’s a section of Ohio law that says basically if it’s blocked more than 15 minutes, they’re required to break the train,” Simpson said. “Now we all know that they don’t do that because of the federal regulations that they operate under, and the fact that they claim that when they break the train it can be a two-hour process to air that thing up again, do their safety inspection and move on.”
According to Simpson, in 2020 the PCSO responded to Jackson Township for a total of 46 calls for service on traffic complaints; 16 of those were related to the railroad being blocked. “So that’s about 35 percent,” he said. In the period of time between Jan. 1 of this year and June 7, there were 38 railroad-related calls out of 50 total in Jackson Township. He noted, 75 percent of those calls the PCSO had in the last 90 days is because there’s no crew for the train. Sometimes, the railroad is charged with a traffic violation.
“And generally what happens, when we sign a complaint and when that’s approved, I think an agent goes to municipal court, pays the whatever the court charges, and we move on,” he said.
“We put traffic counters out after that last meeting, on Oxford-Gettysburg, and we’re getting 705 cars per day, which is a little higher than I think some of the rumors that went around right after the last meeting,” McWhinney said of the Preble County Engineer’s Office. “And then we also put a counter on Toby Road, just to kind of see what the impact would be in the future for the traffic it’s going to get in the long run, and it’s currently 173 cars per day, so it’s pretty low.”
McWhinney continued: “Something that we’ve talked about is maybe a future overpass on Oxford-Gettysburg Road. And we reached out to ODOT to discuss that a little bit. They’ve had some similar projects in the past. You’re probably looking at somewhere around $7-8 million to construct that.” He also noted, with the traffic increase other routes would get, “it’s very possible that there would be roads that the county would have to take over that are no longer township roads and would become county responsibility.”
“I’m going to say your traffic count on Oxford-Gettysburg, is almost twice what the railroad is claiming,” Vonderhaar said.
Toschlog said the traffic in the summer would be considerably different than during the summer months on Oxford-Gettysburg. “’I’ve been in the position of Transportation Director for 20 years at National Trail, and I’ve learned to deal with the blockages in Campbellstown — three crossings that are fairly close if you look on the map.”
“While it’s inconvenient, it’s been something that I have learned to deal with and to work around. What the proposal that I read from the last meeting was, that if you’re looking at a 15,000-foot siding, you’re creating a much larger area that closes more roads, affects more area and is much more difficult,” Toschlog continued. “It’s not as simplistic as it was pointed out, that instead of using Oxford-Gettysburg you can now go to use Toby Road. We have to go around that 15,000-foot in both directions, because we still have a student to pick up immediately across the track on Oxford-Gettysburg Road.”
Toschlog said he has spoken to railroad officials in the past regarding issues the stopped trains cause for students who are already on the buses for just short of an hour.
“Obviously I see one of the results of this possibly being some of those students on that side of track choosing different schools. And I think it could be that drastic,” Toschlog said of closing the Oxford-Gettysburg crossing.
“We need to have Oxford-Gettysburg open to be able to cross over,” he stressed. Additional mileage on buses, additional fuel costs, and additional necessary bus drivers would all be detrimental to the school district.
Chief Smith presented some data regarding closed crossings and adding sidings from the Federal Railroad Administration and noted the added delays they cause. He said adding an overpass on Oxford-Gettysburg would alleviate “a lot of stress” on the emergency responders as well.
Closing the crossings “is not just an inconvenience, it’s just adding time to safety,” Smith said, pointing out probable increased response times.
Anderson provided information relative to the possible threats of a train sitting for any length of time on the extended sidings.
“The other thing that would be a big concern of mine would be domestic terrorism,” he said. “With a train sitting for three or four hours, that would give somebody a lot of time to be able to do something to the train or do something to that particular car. When it gets to a certain area, like maybe you have an explosion and spill all that stuff or they could open valves and things like that which would dump it, creating a big environmental hazard for the area that’s around there. And with it being as far off as what it is, it would be awfully hard and difficult to get people there for clean-up.”
Township trustees said there would be huge additional expenses in widening roads and constructing turnarounds.
Other questions which arose centered around added expenses to the residents in the area: will people’s insurance rates increase? What would happen to property values?
Smith said he didn’t know if the projects would have a dramatic effect on insurance rates in the area, “but it could.”
Officials and residents say the closures would affect not only agricultural traffic, but also every individual who has a right to use the road, and believe the county should press Norfolk Southern to get federal funding for construction of any overpass.
“There’s money out there for these projects. There’s money out there for large scale right-of-way acquisitions and moving entire freight lines out of communities,” Smith said.
“There’s a lot of land affected by a crossing. And there’s also going to be land acquired from the farmers, or the property owners, for a widened railroad right-of-way. So, it’s a long process,” Kramer said.
Jackie Barnes, a resident on Toby Road, addressed commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting. “My family and I will be affected three-faceted,” she said. “I’m a teacher at National Trail High School and we’re on every other day block schedules, and when a kid misses 30 or 40 minutes in my class, I don’t see him for a whole other day. And we all know how important their education is. Just get them there — they’re sleepy in the mornings anyway. I teach math, and everybody says math is hard and it’s a struggle. And if I have kids constantly missing the class because they can’t get to school — through no fault of their own — I mean, that’s directly impacting them, and our lives.” She went on to note, widening the road for the railroad projects would “take out my trees and my yard, as well as all of my neighbors’, because that’s what’s going to have to happen to our road.”
Jeff Lane, a Lakengren resident, Vice President of the Lakengren Property Owners Assocation and news director at Kicks 96, said if he’s learned one thing about the railroad over the years, it’s that the railroad does whatever it pleases.
“As for Lakengren residents, we had an informal survey and sought some feedback and just want to pass along a couple of those concerns,” he said.
According to Lane, 30 percent of the residents who responded said they use Oxford-Gettysburg Road daily and were concerned about the alternate routes to Richmond or westbound Interstate 70. “I think the overwhelming majority of our residents support fighting this issue as much as possible,” he said.
According to Commissioner Vonderhaar, there will be several public meetings with railroad officials present. “At some point this will become, I’m sure, a legal situation, as for the way the talks will go, but we will have multiple opportunities for the public to speak to us, with the railroad present,” she said.
She encourages the public to contact the commission office at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone, 937-456-8143.
The first public meeting will take place during the commissioners’ regular Monday, July 12, meeting, in commission chambers. An evening meeting will be held later that same night, at 6:30 p.m., in the Toney Building located at Preble County Fairgrounds.
Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4061 and follow on Twitter @emowenjr