After a train blocked the Ormond Boulevard crossing for more than 40 minutes on Saturday, Councilwoman Wendy Benedetto is urging residents to call the parish’s Emergency Operations Center to report blockages longer than 20 minutes.
Benedetto said the information will be used in a letter the St. Charles Parish Council plans to send to all railroad companies that travel through the parish. She said that long wait times occur almost daily across the parish and that the EOC is documenting the days and times that crossing blockages occur.
January and February have been particularly bad, Benedetto said, and she plans to send the letter next month.
"We need to figure out the root cause," she said. "Is it because the grain yard is not ready when the trains come through? Is it because of something else? We need to know."
Benedetto said that residents have told her that train operators routinely leave the train in order to go to the bathroom or buy snacks at a nearby Ormond gas station. However, the problem is not isolated to the East Bank.
"It happens in Luling, Norco, Metairie and Kenner. It happens all over," Benedetto said. "If it was an isolated case, it would be easier for us to deal with it."
Two years ago, the Parish Council voiced their concerns about long wait times with railroad representatives. Benedetto said that the problem seemed to stop for a while, but eventually resurfaced.
Parish law says that a railroad crossing may only be blocked for a period of five minutes, but Sheriff Greg Champagne has said that he believes that the parish law is unconstitutional.
Champagne points to a ruling by former Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub that a parish ordinance regulating time limits for obstructing public roads is not valid. The United States Supreme Court has also issued rulings that prevent state and local governments from passing statutes that regulate railroads since they come under the commerce clause of the United States Constitution.
One of the reasons for the long blockages is that there is a switch off or holding track in both Destrehan and Luling. The switch offs are located several miles apart and trains must take them and stop while allowing an oncoming train to pass through.
Champagne said that his office tries to keep communication open with the railroads, but that his office has not issued any citations to railroad companies since he was made aware of the Supreme Court ruling.
Benedetto said that any conversation with the railroad companies needs to be handled delicately.
"The parish needs the railroad to concede to certain things in order to get parish projects completed," Benedetto said.
Benedetto said her main concern is safety, but admits that long wait times have not caused a death. Quinn Landry, spokesman for St. Charles Parish Hospital, said that dispatch is in constant contact with emergency medical personnel to let them know about any obstacles or road blockages when calls go out.
Landry said that emergency care has never been compromised due to a blocked railroad crossing.
"Our EMS staff works very well together. If there is a problem, they will contact another ambulance," he said. "If they get to a crossing and its blocked, they don’t even wait around, they turn around and go another way."
Still, Benedtto said the EOC was "flooded" with calls from residents stuck at the Ormond Boulevard crossing on Saturday and said they need to continue to alert the EOC so that the parish can document any crossing problems.
"I am just as frustrated as everyone else," she said. "We will gather this data and hopefully that will help us find a solution."