I-TEAM: Palatka community often trapped by trains

Residents say lives are at risk, emergency responders blocked, drivers stuck

PALATKA, Fla. – The I-TEAM is exposing what some residents are calling a risk to their lives along the railways. At different times of the day, trains often stop on the tracks for more than an hour, blocking a Putnam County community and limiting access to first responders. 

Residents and business owners tell us they feel trapped by CSX -- the company running the trains. There are only two ways in and out of this Palatka neighborhood that runs along the St. Johns River. 

It's a street called Comfort Road, which crosses the railroad tracks in two places. Right between the intersections is CSX's Pecan Rail yard, where the loading and unloading of train cars takes place every day -- sometimes for more than an hour. Residents, parents and business managers say when the road is blocked, their safety is put in jeopardy. 

"We're cut off when the train gets up to the road up there. You're cut off from the community period," said Palatka resident Ed Killebrew. "There's no way to get past it. No way for ambulances to get through." 

The I-TEAM obtained a 911 call from a business reporting a suspicious vehicle in its parking lot and needed an officer to check it out for the safety of the employees inside. While on the phone with the dispatcher, the caller realizes the train is blocking access.

Caller: "Oh my, there is a train now blocking the entrance. So I just was going to report there, but there is a train blocking the railroad entrance. You want to tell the officer the railroad crossing is blocked."

911 dispatcher: "The railroad crossing is blocked?"

Caller: "Yes there's a train blocking it."

911 dispatcher: "Is the train still blocking?"

Caller: "Yes."

That caller ended up canceling his request for an officer, due to the blocked train. He was just one of 71 people who called 911 in 2016 to report an emergency off Comfort Road. Of those 71 calls, we've learned 14 other callers were people reporting the train was blocking the road for an extended period of time. 

But what would happen if a first responder needed immediate access? It's a major concern for the manager of the Crystal Cove Riverfront Hotel, who is worried about the safety of her guests. 

"We have 54 rooms here, so at any given point we could have 100 people on site, and statistically one of them could get hurt. And in that case, we would need someone to assist and help them and they can't get to them," said hotel manager Jessica Bouchez.

Besides the safety concern, Bouchez says the stopped trains are also taking a toll on her business.

"We've had guests that don't want to stay. They've been blocked by the train for too long to go into town or go back," she said.

Because there is no set schedule, there is no telling when the train will come and how long it will stop.

We got caught by the train ourselves while covering this story. We timed the length of this particular one at nine minutes and 40 seconds. But, residents have been sharing their cell phone videos and pictures with us for months, saying the train regularly traps them for much longer. 

The I-TEAM took the community's concerns to CSX.

While the company would not talk to us on camera, Kristin Seay with CSX Corporate Communications, released the following statement:

Pecan Rail Yard has been an important point on CSX's rail network for many years, providing local freight service to the Palatka community and Northeast Florida.  CSX strives to minimize impacts to the community while providing the safest, most efficient service possible for our customers and the communities we serve. We are continuing to review our operations to determine if any adjustments can be made to reduce road blockages in the areas surrounding Pecan Yard.

For the community's safety, CSX urges the public to use extreme caution around railroad tracks and never to climb through the cars of a train. Cars can shift even when the train is stopped and trains can begin moving unexpectedly potentially causing serious injury."

We checked and found there is no Florida law prohibiting CSX from blocking roads for long periods of time. But in cases of an emergency, the law states that, "...Any train or equipment that has come to a complete stop and is blocking a railroad-highway grade crossing must be cut, separated, or moved to clear the crossing upon the approach."

Locals tell us in a true emergency, disconnecting the train and clearing the road could cost first responders precious time.

"In an emergency situation, you're having a heart attack or whatever is going on with you, every second counts," said Killebrew.

We asked CSX how long it would take to disconnect the cars and clear the tracks as CSX is required to do by Florida law. A spokesperson couldn't give an exact time citing various factors to separate rail cars, but clearly there would be some delay in an emergency response. CSX did tell the I-TEAM it is going to make some adjustments to reduce crossing blockages. 

Another concern for residents: some who are trapped by the trains are abandoning their cars on one side of the tracks and then climbing through the stopped train cars to get to the other side. 

"I saw people that were crawling back and forth on either side, you know, going from one area to another, and just leaving their cars on the side of the road, and I made sure I told the [CSX] representatives that," said resident Paul Flateau. "In between where the trains connect together, they would crawl on the other side of it passing, you know, like saying, 'I got to get to work.'"

Parents tell the I-TEAM because of the stopped trains, their kids are chronically late for school. Residents also say it's causing an issue for reselling homes in the community -- because of the inconvenience. 

CSX says it encourages community members to report extended blockages or any other rail-related concern to 1-877-TELLCSX (1-877-835-5279).

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