It happened again this morning. I was less than a mile from home, on my way to the Houston Landing’s office to write this column about stopped trains, when I saw the flashing lights pinging in front of a long mass of gray and black train cars. Yet another Union Pacific train had stopped in the middle of the road, blocking two intersections – Leeland and Cullen – during morning rush hour.
It’s a running joke: If you live in the East End, you have a “stopped train” story. I’ve heard them all. Kids throwing bikes under train cars to reach McReynolds Middle School – just a few yards from the track – in time for class. A neighbor who had to reroute on the way to a dialysis appointment. Or mine: The time I had to hop a train, pregnant, in 100-plus degree heat after being stranded on the wrong side for so long I began feeling woozy.
Between Feb. 14, 2022, and Feb. 14, 2023, the Federal Railroad Administration received 6,134 reports of a stopped train blocking street traffic in Texas. That’s 82 percent higher than the next state, Ohio, which reported 3,365 instances, according to the FRA.
But if you dive deeper into the data, it’s impossible to ignore what’s pushing Texas’ numbers so high: Houston. For that one-year period, 3,429 reports of blocked intersections in the city were filed through the FRA’s blocked crossing database, where anyone who witnesses a stopped train can report it to the government. The number of reports in Houston is higher than the entire state of Ohio.
Drill down even further and you’ll see there’s a specific part of the city experiencing this issue at a rate unseen elsewhere: the East End.
Leeland and Milby streets tied for the most complaints at 356 apiece, followed by Cullen Boulevard at 237, then Eastwood Street at 172. Those four crossings, all of which are operated by Union Pacific Railroad, and are nestled within walking distance of each other, together accounted for more reports of blocked streets than all but eight states.
‘A big concern’
Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña says that as recently as two months ago, his department experienced, on average, “96 instances a month where our crews were either delayed or they had to reroute because of blocked crossings.” The obstructions added up to 10 minutes to response times.
The problem is so persistent for Houston Fire Station 18 that crews installed a camera allowing them to check whether streets are blocked by a stopped train as they load up to respond to a call. But even that’s not perfect. Trains that appear to be in motion at the time a call comes in can grind to a halt by the time a fire engine reaches the intersection.
“Operationally, it’s a big concern for us,” Peña says. “It can cost lives, you know. And we know it extends our response times when we have to find an alternate route.”
It’s one thing to reroute around a moving train, Peña said. “But when they’re stopped for an indefinite amount of time, that is a concern for us, because it essentially isolates certain areas of our city and prevents us from being able to service those communities.”
In short, it jeopardizes public health.
“I’ve witnessed for years – decades, if you will – children losing their lives and taking on great harm because trains have stopped,” Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia told FRA Administrator Amit Bose during Bose’s recent visit to Houston. “Some of these lines are right next to schools. They get impatient and try to make their way under or over stopped trains.”
That’s a serious problem that deserves a serious solution.
U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, whose congressional district includes many of the pain points in Houston’s East End, earlier this month filed a bill in Congress that will prohibit rail carriers from blocking intersections with passing trains for more than 10 minutes and allow the Secretary of Transportation to issue civil penalties for violations. The “Don’t BLock Our Communities Act,” or “D-BLOC Act,” resuscitates a bill introduced in 2021 by a congressman from Tennessee, which never advanced out of the House.
Sylvia Garcia is optimistic this bill can lead to real change in her neighborhood. During a community meeting at McReynolds Middle School in late February, she told more than 100 constituents that “if I didn’t think I would get it done, I wouldn’t file it.”
But constituents are skeptical.
“We are encouraged to see a bill filed, but we want to know that A: it can actually get out of committee; and B: that if it’s passed, it will actually be enforceable in a way that proves to be a real financial deterrent,” says Clay Dippel, a member of the Eastwood Civic Association’s board of directors. (He and I met to discuss this topic over coffee in February; on my walk home from Segundo Coffee Lab, I noted a train stopped on Lockwood Drive.)
As Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said following the recent disastrous derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, where the maximum fine allowed was capped at $225,455, such penalties are “pretty much a rounding error for a multibillion-dollar corporation.”
Union Pacific posted about $7 billion in profit in 2022.
Stopping the pattern
According to the FRA’s current schedule, civil penalties for rail safety infractions range from $1,052 to $34,401 per violation. Setting the fines at the minimum would mean that 3,429 stopped trains in Houston would result in $3.6 million in penalties at that rate.
That may sound like a lot of money, but it only accounts for 0.05 percent of Union Pacific’s 2022 profit – a rounding error.
Setting the penalties at the maximum would add up to $118 million, or 1.7 percent of Union Pacific’s profit. That would be much more likely to garner attention from the railroad company. (Union Pacific did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but has contended in public hearings that the stopped trains are largely due to increased traffic and congestion in its rail yard.)
But here’s where Sylvia Garcia’s bill could have real impact: The FRA’s fee structure stipulates that when a “grossly negligent violation or a pattern of repeated violations has created an imminent hazard of death or injury or has caused death or injury,” penalties can increase up to $137,603.
And Sylvia Garcia includes a line that says the Secretary of Transportation “shall consider increased penalties in a case in which a pattern of the blocked crossing incidents continue to cause delays to State or local emergency services.”
Join me now for one of those wretched “If a train leaves Houston traveling at 100 miles per hour” math problems from your middle school nightmares: If Peña sees an average of 96 incidents a month in which emergency services are rerouted due to blocked train crossings, and each incident carries a fee of up to $137,603, how much money in fines would that add up to in one year?
The answer is $158.5 million. Add that to the mix, and rounding errors begin giving way to fines that could actually change behavior.
Sylvia Garcia and Congress should settle for no less.