WHAT WE THINK: Railroads have too much power

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The unliateral, do-as-they-please mentality arose last week when crossing worked closed access on the south side of Shelbyville.

A communications gap last week among employees of Norfolk Southern Railroad that frustrated residents and officials in Shelby County was testament to a much larger problem than some blocked crossings that railroaded commuters on the first day of the school year.

We understand that one of the railroad’s repair crews didn’t know what at least two others less than a mile away were doing, which led to the snafu of simultaneous closing for repairs of three crossings, trapping some motorists in between and sending others – including a school bus headed for Southside Elementary – on miles-long detours that only extended their overall irritations with the problem.

Some students were delayed in arriving for the fun part of the first day, but there were residents who couldn’t even get in and out of their own neighborhoods. Businesses had stranded customers, and traffic generally was jammed up for most of the length of Kentucky Street, from 10th Street in Shelbyville to where it unites with Mack Walters Road to form Zaring Mill.

This gridlock would seem to affect a small area and not that many people in the immediate vicinity of the crossings, but consider that it severed the flow of the only southern artery out of Shelbyville within the 3-mile-wide perimeter of Mount Eden and Taylorsville roads. What if there had been a medical or fire emergency in that area?

Yes, folks, this was a transportation travail.

But the bigger mess is what we divine as a God-given gall that railroad companies seem to project as they act with what could be seen as approaching a Constitutional right: to do as they see fit, when they see fit and how they see fit – with everything and everyone else be damned.

In this case of tackling the blocking, the list of those damned and convulsing about his or her inability to do anything started with Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty, members of his police department, Shelby County Sheriff Mike Armstrong and filtered to a lot of other officials on down the civic food chain.

Mr. Hardesty called this a “catastrophe.” Sheriff Armstrong expressed frustration with callers who wanted him to, well, act like the sheriff and run these bad guys out of town. Said Mr. Armstrong: “What do you want me to do?”

He in fact became so frustrated with complaints that he dispatched himself to the scene and put down his foot in such a manner that apparently spurred – and we are cautious with giving credit for anyone with the power to move the railroad – a speedier reopening of the roads.

Yet, the fact that a sheriff is the only person who could seize control of the situation is what chafes our caboose.

Why do public officials often decry the railroad as imperialistic? Why do some fear their total control of stripes of land across the girth of our world? Why do railroads have their own all-powerful police forces? How did it evolve this way?

Maybe in Shelby County we are more sensitive than most places about the sovereignty of railroads because residents with tenure recall how Norfolk Southern Railroad cut a quiet deal with Ford Motor Company, closed a linking country road and created sky pollution that sullies our otherwise beautiful and rolling countryside. Yes, that Mixing Center was a runaway train, as it were, and no one could or would do anything to stop it.

That’s why Mr. Hardesty and others can make phone calls and make requests to try to foster positive relationships with individuals, but when a whole segment of his city comes to a standstill, you understand why his heart rate correspondingly is in full motion. Some officials say they have a fair relationship with railroad officials, but each of them admits he or she really has no voice in decision-making concerning the railroad’s projects.

In fact, that fear of the railroad has in no small way contributed to the 109 Solid Waste Board’s plans for a $3.2 million waste facility in the Shelby County Industrial Park. Members of the 109 Board have said that the public’s ability to use the current Convenience Center in Waddy could end at any moment if the railroad decided vehicles no longer could cross its tracks that separate the highway from the center. And we understand that fear – even if we don’t think this new facility is the best way to remove it.

How could the railroad wield such power? Its officials historically have had a rather simple perspective: We were here first and these lines and crossings are private property, so if you want to deal with us, you will pay our price and follow our requirements.

That’s not likely to change until federal and state governments establish laws that dilute the authority of railroads, which are no longer the centerpiece of our transportation grid. They have devolved into minimal cargo haulers that also provide some public transportation regionally. Their power largely is historical. and it’s time to change that power. Yet, many people are affected significantly by a problem as simple as a “miscommunication.”

That’s why we no longer should accept and embrace any business environment that can without notice shut our roads, keep us out of our homes and require a sheriff to get any sort of response. It’s our ordained right to dislike that situation, and we should echo those complaints to all ears who at some point might hear us and affect change.