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Blocked Rail Crossings Snarl Towns, but Congress Won’t Act

Freight trains frequently stop and block the roads of York, Ala., sometimes cutting off two neighborhoods for hours. Emergency services and health care workers can’t get in, and those trapped inside can’t get out.

“People’s livelihoods are in jeopardy because they can’t get to work on time,” said Amanda Brassfield, who has lived in one of the neighborhoods, Grant City, for 32 years and raised two daughters there. “It’s not fair.”

Residents have voiced these complaints for years to Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks, and to regulators and members of Congress. But the problem has only gotten worse.

Freight trains frequently block roads nationwide, a phenomenon that local officials say has grown steadily worse in the last decade as railroads run longer trains and leave them parked on tracks at crossings. The blockages can turn school drop-offs into nightmares, starve local businesses of customers and prevent emergency services from reaching those in distress.

The problem has persisted despite numerous federal, state and local proposals and laws because the freight rail industry wields enormous political and legal power.