The Little Train That Shouldn’t

A short while ago Charles “Chip” Nottingham served as the transportation commissioner of Virginia. Mr. Nottingham now serves the federal government as Chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, and was invited by Houston’s Mayor Bill White to see how freight trains often block the traffic in Houston’s streets.

He got a bird’s eye view of the congestion when he was given a helicopter tour of the area earlier this week, and he expressed amazement at the snarls caused by blocked rail crossings. The helicopter tour began at the Port of Houston, flew over Barbours Cut and Bayport, then headed west to Fort Bend County. They followed the Union Pacific tracks into Houston, and over downtown to the Northside and East End, and every neighborhood they flew over had at-grade rail crossings.

Toward the end of their 45-minute tour, the helicopter flew over a four-lane street by a rail switching yard near southeast Houston, where a Metro bus and several tractor-trailers were blocked by a stopped train and forced to wait at a crossing.

“They’re so arrogant,” Mayor White remarked to Chairman Nottingham. “That train does not have to be stopped over those tracks. The railroad does not give a darn,” he added.

Eventually, the bus driver took a detour and the train slowly began to move. The street was not identified, and Metropolitan Transit Authority dispatchers were uncertain of the bus route. “They get blocked every day by trains,” MTA spokeswoman Raequel Roberts said.

After describing Houston’s industrial and rail complexes as “truly impressive”, Mr. Nottingham said, “but there is a flip side to that. I was amazed to see how many crossings you have and how many neighborhoods are right up against railroads.

“We saw a stopped train blocking several streets and a commuter bus doing a U-turn in the fourth-largest city in the country in the middle of the day,” he said.

If the Chairman of the Surface Transportation Board is amazed at the congestion caused by trains in the nation’s fourth-largest city, what do you suppose his reaction will be:

• when the Port of NY/NJ tries to push its projected 19,000,000 TEUs through the nation’s largest city,
• and when the port complex at LA/Long Beach tries to push its projected doubled, or tripled, volume through the nation’s second largest metropolitan area?

When asked what he could do to help, Mr. Nottingham replied that the newly formed Gulf Coast Freight Rail District “should consult with the railroads to find solutions”.

[The railroads that don’t give a darn. Right?]