By Hannah Caver, Staff Writer
TRUSSVILLE — Recent railroad blockages along South Chalkville road are “due to a significant increase in volume” in freight as part of the national supply chain challenges as well as the company’s hiring woes, according to a representative for Norfolk Southern.
Norfolk Southern sent out a cut order —instructions on when to separate a train’s freight cars and where to separate them — to its employees. The company has acknowledged the importance of South Chalkville Road staying open and plans to keep the road open as much as reasonably possible.
“Our dispatchers and crews have been directly alerted to the importance of this crossing and to mitigate blockages whenever possible – including separating the train if that option is available,” Norfolk Southern said in a prepared statement. “This should help alleviate many of those lengthy delays we have been seeing. We’re grateful for the continued conversation and partnership with local leaders in Trussville and the community at large.”
However, a train will only be separated to open a roadway if it is deemed reasonable by the railroad. Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker explained that it takes time to separate, and when it’s time to move the train, the train then has to be re-inspected before it can be moved.
“Hypothetically speaking, if the train will be there for 30 minutes blocking and someone wants the train cut, then we can cut the train,” Spielmaker said. “Sure, it’ll be open for you know that 30 minutes otherwise would have been delayed there, but now it’s going to be closed for 45 minutes to an hour while we re-inspect the train. So it’s not always going to make sense to cut the train; it’s not always going to be possible to cut the train. So the train will not be able to be cut every single time a train is going through there.”
Cutting a train in the siding at the South Chalkville Road crossing is also considered a safety hazard because you may not be able to see a train coming through the mainline.
Irondale is considered one of the major hubs for Norfolk Southern because any traffic (traditional train traffic, boxcars, steel loads) from the southeast will go through Birmingham. In Alabama, most train tracks are single tracks, which means the track goes one way. The South Chalkville Road crossing has two tracks, but one of the tracks is a rail siding, a short stretch of railroad track used for trains to stop and/or allow other trains to pass.
The South Chalkville Road crossing is considered a main thoroughfare for the Irondale train yard.
Spielmaker explained that when a train needs to be moved, either into or out of the yard, sometimes a train will be pulled into the siding at South Chalkville Road to leave the main railroad line open so that a train can get out. The siding is long enough to accommodate most Norfolk Southern trains, but there are occasions when the train is longer than the siding, which is why the train sticks out and/or blocks the crossing.
“If trains can’t get out, then trains can’t get in, which is where the crossing gets blocked,” Spielmaker said.
While Alabama has recovered quickly economically, Norfolk Southern is still feeling the impacts of labor shortages, so while their customers are requesting they move more inventory around and more trains are becoming active, there are not enough qualified crew members to operate the trains. Spielmaker explained that Norfolk Southern is actively hiring across the network, but it does take time to train someone to properly operate a train.
“Birmingham is a significant hub in Norfolk Southern’s system, helping to move goods across Alabama and the country,” Norfolk Southern’s prepared statement reads. “As our nation’s economy has recovered, we’ve seen Alabama businesses improve right there with it. Those businesses have called on us to help move their goods, bringing a significant increase in volume. At the same time, the rail industry is not immune from national labor trends. These factors can cause increased congestion across the network, and therefore more local delays. Because of Trussville’s proximity to our Irondale yard, it’s a very active crossing – delays are extra noticeable. However, we know S. Chalkville Road is an integral part of Trussville’s infrastructure.”