Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia Versus the Railroad

By Allan Jamail

HOUSTON – Denver Harbor – 5910 Market St. February 23, 2023. In McReynolds Middle School, the home of the Mighty Fighting Bears Congresswoman, Sylvia Garcia showed the Railroad Companies she too is a fighter.

Garcia, a fighter in her own rights, took over on a battle with the rail carriers that began many years before without many results by other elected officials, community leaders, organizations and citizens, to alleviate the disruptions of vehicular traffic caused by the excessive delays at intersections.

“I’m introducing a bill in Congress to address the issue of blocked crossings. My bill, Don’t Block Our Communities Act, or the D-BLOC Act, is a significant step towards holding rail carriers accountable and making our communities more efficient and safe. As you know, rail safety and transportation reliability are among my top priorities. I am exceptionally dedicated to ensuring that passing trains do not continue to disrupt the flow of traffic and emergency vehicles in my district,” Garcia said.

The law will prohibit blocking intersections with passing trains for more than 10 minutes. It will require the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to investigate blocked crossings incidents that have been reported by the public to the new “blocked crossing database.”

The legislation allows the FRA to issue fines to rail carriers for repeated violations of this blocked crossing time limit (10 minutes).

The public meeting was well attended by elected officials, community leaders, organizations and citizens. Some present included: State Senator Carol Alvarado, Yuorba Harris, Chief District Director for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Adriana Aguirre, Chief of Staff for State Representative Ana Hernandez, Joaquin Martinez, Chief of Staff for Councilman Robert Gallegos and Lon Squyres, City Manager of Jacinto City and Chief Samuel Peña, Houston’s Fire Chief.

Congresswoman Garcia introduced Amit Bose, FRA Administrator. Administrator Bose was nominated by the President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate January 2022. Bose is the principal advisor to the Secretary of Transportation (Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation) and is the principal representative of the US Department of Transportation on railroad affairs and other fixed guideway transportation matters.

Garcia also introduced Clint Schelbitzki, Assist. Vice President of Public Affairs of Houston’s Union Pacific Railroad office. Union Pacific (UP) is the largest railroad in North America, covering 23 states across the western two-thirds of the United States. Bose and Schelbitzki explained the new FRA Houston Blocked Crossing Initiative. It’s an innovative approach called TRAINFO Pilot Program and Positive Train Control (PTC) made available by $430,000 in FRA funds. The goals of the program are to decrease the number of stopped trains and the duration of times trains are stopped. By using a database of reported and or known excessive crossing delays, and by UP working with and communicating with the city of Houston’s emergency departments, it can help navigate alternative routes for emergency vehicles and the public.

Bose said the FRA is committed to having two members of his staff monitor and to support his pledge to focus on blocked crossings in Houston. They’ll ensure collected data on stopped trains, length of trains, time of day, duration of stoppage, critical crossings blocked and the reason for stoppage and duration. They’ll provide weekly status meetings with the FRA headquarters.

TRAINFO will help emergency dispatchers select routes to avoid delays caused by trains, to put an end to emergency vehicles with activated sirens and lights stopped and waiting at rail crossings. Emergency dispatchers will receive real-time rail crossing blockage alerts so to give emergency vehicles other routes around blocked crossings. Houston FD and PD are currently collecting and analyzing TRAINFO information data into dispatching in January 2023.

During the public’s question and answers period, questions were asked of Garcia, Bose or Schelbitzki. City Manager Lon Squyres said and asked, “While it’s good to see the new technology to help blocked crossings, it has been limited within the city of Houston. When will we see this type of technology applied to outlying areas?” He was advised that for now this is a pilot program and hopefully once it’s producing positive results, then it can be used more widely across the county.

Briana Baisden, a Houston citizen, asked UP’s Clint Schelbitzki, why after funding was approved to establish 8 quiet zones and with “no horn” signs posted within the east end in 2018 haven’t they been erected? She was informed the matter will be looked into. Baisden has kept detailed records presented them of how many times she’s been given the runaround by UP. Now she is again being told what she’s been told for years.

State Senator Carol Alvarado issued the following statement: “I appreciate the attention we’re receiving from the Federal Railroad Administration. This has been a longstanding issue in our community and I remain committed to working with all stakeholders to find a meaningful solution for Senate District 6.”

State Representative Ana Hernandez issued the following statement: “Railroad trains have become increasingly longer and more dangerous as they travel across the country through our communities. Long trains impact our communities by blocking major thoroughfares for long periods of time, impeding emergency response time, and also impact railroad worker safety. I filed House Bill 2717 to regulate train length. This legislation will improve public safety and worker safety by setting a maximum train length.”

After the meeting, this reporter asked UP’s Clint Schelbitzki numerous questions, which members of the public solicited his help in getting answers to, but as of this writing Schelbitzki has not provided the answers.

Citizens can report excessively blocked UP rail crossings by calling, 1-888-877-7267, UP’s critical call center, or the Texas FRA office: 817-862- 2200.

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