EATON — Nearly 100 county residents packed into the Toney Building at the Preble County Fairgrounds on Monday, July 12, for a public meeting between the Preble County Board of Commissioners and Norfolk Southern concerning potential railroad crossing closures in the county, including on Oxford-Gettysburg Road.
The meeting provided the public an opportunity to comment on potential plans for constructing one 15,000-foot siding outside of Campbellstown. The siding would allow the railroad to store rolling stock or enable trains on the same line to pass, but it would force the permanent closure of crossings on Oxford-Gettysburg Road, Daily Road and Conley Road.
In addition to Commissioners Rachael Vonderhaar and David Haber, four officials from Norfolk Southern were present, including William Miller (Public Safety Director), Jason Wazelle (Executive Director, Government Relations), Shelby Mayes (Design and Construction Group) and Brianna McFarland (Design Engineer).
Miller began the meeting by explaining Norfolk Southern’s reasoning behind looking at Preble County for these closings.
“Currently, we have capacity constraints in between really Elkhart (Indiana), Chicago, and all the way down to Cincinnati,” he said “We’re looking for places to be able to put long trains and not block crossings. We were really challenged to find a place in between Muncie and Cincinnati, and we looked at about five locations pretty hard, but this one over close to Campbellstown is the place that we thought would be the best place for us to put in a new siding.”
Miller continued, saying he understands that closing crossings is contentious, but it’s better to plan for the future and proactively work with communities rather than just building it.
Preble County Engineer Kyle Cross was the first to speak in the public portion, explaining how previous emails to Norfolk Southern regarding a sign near a railroad crossing had gone unanswered.
“If we can’t have a conversation on something as simple as putting up a sign when you guys are coming in here talking about closing three, maybe at some point four roads out of this whole deal, I’ve got a lot of concerns,” Cross said, to which Wazelle said he would get Cross a meeting.
Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson then provided some updated statistics on the number of calls the PCSO receives about stopped trains on crossings, saying they have received seven more calls since June 29.
“My question to these gentleman during the commission meeting was, I asked for an explanation as to why that train ever left Sharonville for Cincinnati, knowing when they get to Cincinnati, when they get to Campbellstown, they’re going to have to park it,” Simpson said. “I’m assuming that’s to get it out of the way. I tell you guys the same thing I told these two gentlemen; that makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Miller explained this project would take up the double track in Campbellstown.
“That’s a big part of this project is moving the storage place for trains further away from Campbellstown so that those crossings remain open,” he said, before saying the railroad is forced to ship what is given to them.
Following a question about expanding the railroad’s current right-of-way, which is an easement granted for transportation services, Mayes clarified the railroad will likely look to acquire strips of property, though it is not expected to impact any structures.
Then asked about the possibility of constructing an overpass on Oxford-Gettysburg Road, Miller said the meeting is taking place to help Norfolk Southern understand the community’s concerns. Cross informed Miller that the county’s count of close to 700 cars per day exceeded Norfolk Southern’s count of 350.
“So, it’s an important road to this community,” Miller said. “But, when you look at all the places in the state of Ohio, and they’re using their money, they’re putting grade separations at roadways with 15,000-20,000 vehicles a day. It’s not that we wouldn’t have that conversation with them to see if anything exists, but you know, we can’t guarantee anything from our standpoint. We just can’t.”
Representatives from National Trail then spoke, including superintendent Bob Fischer and School Transportation Safety Director John Toschlog.
Fischer pushed officials on the timeline of the project, saying that a transcript of a June 9 meeting quoted a Norfolk Southern official as saying, “I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen anyway.”
“That’s why I wonder really, truthfully, how long this has been going on, because hearing it from our commissioner for the first time and not having anybody from the railroad call, which maybe that’s just a wishful thought from a communication standpoint, but I’m offended as the school district that’s going to have a gigantic impact or be impacted by this negatively,” Fischer said.
He added impacts would be felt for students spending more time on the bus, additional bussing costs, and that the project is expected to begin in the second quarter of 2022, which would fall during Trail’s second semester. Fischer then asked if Norfolk Southern was aware Oxford-Gettysburg Road is a major thoroughfare for the district.
“I wasn’t,” Miller said, to which Fischer responded the railroad wasn’t doing its homework.
“Those negative impacts on people that haven’t been thought of by your company is the problem,” Fischer said. “It’s frustrating because we’re not thinking about what’s best for people. We’re thinking about what’s best for a train.”
Toschlog then added that two of Trail’s three bus routes that cross Norfolk Southern’s crossings will be impacted.
“While you’re saying it’s freeing up other roads…we still have to look at picking up students on the other side of those blocked crossings. It’s not just a matter of taking over the route to get around,” Toschlog said. “We have to go around, then go back to the center to pick up students and continue our pick up, and then go back to get around the edge of that crossing that’s blocking us again. We need to have some way to get to that southern part of our school district.”
Jane Marshall, former county commissioner and current Lanier Township resident, asked where else Norfolk Southern had looked to do this project.
“We looked at a few different places,” Mayes said. “We looked west of Campbellstown. Can’t remember the exact roads that were crossing there. Looked at a couple different options east of Campbellstown, closer to Eaton,” to which Marshall asked if they looked outside of Preble County.
“We looked at some locations closer to Cincinnati, just north of Hamilton, looked at location south of Eaton, which is still in Preble County,” Mayes responded. “Those are pretty much the places we’ve been looking because that’s where the operations needs the siding to be located.”
Officials also clarified plans are still in the early stages, so written explanations or drawings of expected work are not yet available.
“That’s part of the reason that we’re willing to have these meetings,” Wazelle said. “I know that everyone is under the impression that we’re just going to come in and do this. We are wanting to work with you all and better understand the situation so that we can hopefully work what’s best for everyone.”
Fischer then reiterated that despite plans being in the early stages, officials stated the project was likely to happen.
“I’m going to tag on to that,” Vonderhaar said. “The initial meeting and delivery was a bit rough. With that, you said that you’d be starting in the spring of this next year. That is what then was recorded at our meeting. So today, you brought Shelby and Brianna, and their design team. It’s our first time to meet them. And some of the information tonight is different than what was delivered at that first meeting.”
Miller responded by saying that plans can change.
“…but I would say there’s enough interest. The things about this location, the direction we’ve gotten, is this is where we want to focus our energy in between Muncie and Cincinnati,” he said. “This is the place, and that’s why I said it’s probably going to happen. I can’t tell you when.”
“I know in agriculture, we respect and appreciate the railroad for our inputs being delivered, and our crops being hauled out,” Vonderhaar later said. “We understand the value of rail but at the same time, we’re asking for that same respect in return, and we would like to be part of the conversation to [have] the least amount of impact to our lives and our way of life, and what the quality of life looks like going forward for our whole community.”
After more residents spoke up against the crossing closures, the meeting was called after nearly an hour-and-a-half. A date has not been set, but there are expected to be more public meetings to give the public an opportunity to provide input.
Residents looking to provide feedback can do so by contacting the Preble County Board of Commissioners at [email protected] or by phone at 937-456-8143.
Reach Braden Moles at 937-683-4056 or on Twitter @BradenMoles