Drivers frustrated by trains blocking intersections, outdated laws make enforcement nearly impossible

The Investigators

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Those who drive through parts of North Charleston likely find themselves stuck behind railroad tracks waiting for a slow or even stopped train to pass. It can be frustrating, but outdated state laws make it almost impossible to get those trains moving.

“I get stuck at a crossing every single day in this area,” said one Lowcountry driver. “I don’t mind when they pass but it’s when they stop that I get annoyed,” added another.

Paul Ristau’s children attend a school on East Montague Avenue just past the railroad crossing.

“Once you get here and end up sitting for another 15 minutes it makes for a frustrating beginning of the day, and also at the end of the day when it happens all over again,” said Ristau.

It’s a complaint familiar to North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.

“This morning we got phone calls from people sitting on Montague Avenue for 25 minutes waiting for the train to cross,” said Summey.

CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Palmetto Railways all move freight through the area. Summey said they try to work with the rail system to lessen disruptions to drivers.

“We aren’t here to fuss. How can we work together to make it work where it’s a benefit to the economy, a benefit of South Carolina, and not to the detriment of cities like North Charleston,” he asked.

Drivers News 2 spoke with said more needs to be done to get these trains moving.

“They are not being held accountable. It’s not fair that they can continue to do this,” said a driver who was stopped at the tracks.

The Investigators learned the only protection for drivers is a state law dating back to 1902. The law fines rail systems between $5 to $20 for blocking a crossing for more than five minutes and requires law enforcement officers to walk down the track to verbally warn the conductor before physically handing them a citation.

North Charleston city leaders say their officers don’t enforce the law because it is not a worthwhile investment of resources.

“It is just not going to work we are dealing with laws involving trains that were put in place when the west was being developed,” said Summey.

Legislators, like Representative Marvin Pendarvis, have tried to introduce bills that would carry larger fines.

“You are talking about $5 or $20 fines. That is not going to incentive or change behavior of these rail companies. We need to have some real enforcement,” said Pendarvis. 

In 2018, he introduced a bill that would fine the train company between $5,000 and $10,000 for blocking lanes of traffic depending on the time of day.

“We need to make sure that they are feeling it and if the feel it in their pocket, that is when they will be apt to change,” he added. 

The bill never made it to vote — but even if it did pass, new laws have little chance of fixing the problem because of several federal laws, including the 1877 Commerce Act, that overrules states anti-blocking laws. 

Mayor Summey says they working on creating a overpass for drivers here on Durant Avenue that would ease traffic at crossings. 

Senator Larry Grooms who heads the Senate’s Transportation Committee said the states new inter modal facility will also relieve congestion. 

Report a blocked crossing to the Federal Railroad Administration.

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