The Daily Gamecock

Rail delays drive USC students to illegal actions

Blocked train crossings cause commuter frustration


Locomotives on campus often make students a little loco.

The legion of trains that chug through USC's campus each day is causing tardiness among students, and some are making illegal and dangerous decisions to avoid blocked crossings.

"If the trains are stopped, you can crawl through them," said Dan Zordan, a fourth-year civil engineering student. "I see people do it all the time, especially right up there by Green's (Beverages). It seems to stop there a lot, so I have crawled through it a bunch of times. I see other students do it, then there are others who are kind of freaked out."

There are nearly 30 railroad crossings condensed within a 1-mile radius, woven among the university and nearby off-campus housing. And there are no laws enforcing the number of cars a locomotive can haul, nor the timely removal of trains at crossings.

Portia Rivers, first-year biology student, said trains have taken as long as 20 minutes to begin moving again. However, crossing tracks is considered trespassing, and students can be arrested for doing so.

Robin Chapman, the director of public relations at Norfolk Southern Corporation since 1985, said the company tries to keep blocked crossings to a minimum but can not entirely prevent that from happening.

"We have a yard just southeast of your campus that is one of our main switching yards," Chapman said. "Trains must stop there to decouple."

Decoupling is the process of separating train cars to create open track space before crossings can clear efficiently.

Chapman said the amount of trains that run in a day is unpredictable and can average between 10 to 12 trains per day. This figure, he said, doesn't include CSX or Amtrak.

"What affects speed are the operational requirements customers require of us," Chapman said. "Freight trains don't run on schedules. We run trains when they are ready to go."

The three train companies, which are owned by both Norfolk and CSX, share the few tracks that run through Columbia. Amtrak runs two passenger trains daily in the early morning hours, and a spokeswoman at CSX said the company cannot give out any information due to heightened security since Sept. 11.

Congested crossroads, especially on Assembly Street, exasperate drivers and pedestrians, luring them to ineffective routes — usually two-lane roads that also become jammed.

"I started coming up this way, going underneath the bridge at Whaley (Street) because I kept getting stopped, so I started hopping the train — everyone was hopping the train. But then, it became unsafe," said Katherine Hagg, a second-year psychology student.

Finding detours is sometimes so vexing, students worry what would happen in an emergency situation where they may need medical assistance if there is no way to bypass a train at a standstill. Chapman said it is up to the state to provide alternative route solutions.

According to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit group offering rail-safety education, a train hits a pedestrian or vehicle roughly every three hours in America. Therefore, students should be cautious — a reminder to students who traverse the center of the tracks, many of whom wear headphones and are deaf to the blast of a train horn.

"I'd like to emphasize the importance of safety around crossings for pedestrians," Chapman said. "Don't go through stopped trains because sometimes they can move. We understand it is an inconvenience, but unfortunately nothing can be done, nothing anyone would want to pay for — overpasses, underpasses. It's just too expensive of an undertaking."

CSX said it offers a phone line to report blocked crossings and emergencies and will also schedule a free railroad safety workshop at the university. Operation Lifesaver's website also offers extensive education on rail safety.