Houston Is Being Crippled by Stopped Freight Trains Blocking the Roads

Photo:  Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc (Getty Images)
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc (Getty Images)

The East End neighborhood of Houston, Texas, has a problem. The area is dotted with train crossings, spots where rail meets road and one must yield. Yet while most of us have likely had run-ins with trains while we drive, forcing us to sit in our cars and wait, few of us have had to deal with the sheer hours of stopped traffic that Houston’s Union Pacific crossings have lately been causing. Because in the East End, trains stop at crossings for hours and hours — snarling traffic, halting emergency responders, and dividing the neighborhood.

A column in Houston Landing covered the issue earlier this week, telling stories of just how bad the East End’s train problem is. Children are forced to clamber over or under stopped trains just to get to school on time — a shockingly dangerous situation. Drivers find themselves trapped on the road in Texas heat for hours on end. Even emergency responders have had problems: The local fire department has installed cameras at East End crossings to check for stopped trains as they’re preparing to drive to an emergency, in hopes of rerouting before they get caught in a jam.

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Photo:  Bing Guan/Bloomberg (Getty Images)
Photo: Bing Guan/Bloomberg (Getty Images)

The crossings in question are all operated by Union Pacific, which doesn’t even face legal penalties for such extended traffic stoppages. In Housing Landing, writer Maggie Gordon discusses why even the penalties suggested by the Federal Railroad Association (which are not invoked in Houston) wouldn’t work: They’re simply too small. A maximum penalty of $34,401 means nothing to a company like Union Pacific, which raked in $7 billion in profit last year alone. So there’s currently no incentive for the company to change how it does business.

At least, not yet. The area’s Congressional representative, Sylvia Garcia, has proposed new fines to address stopped trains blocking traffic. Under her bill, fines could reach $137,603 per violation — an increase that Garcia hopes will give Union Pacific pause.

The full Houston Landing piece is worth a read, discussing the effect of these stoppages on Houston’s East End in the way that only a local can. With such fervor pushing for change, hopefully it’s only a matter of time until Houston’s residents get their roads back.

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