Front Street crossing (West Springfield)

Highlighted here is the longstanding issue of freight trains blocking the Front Street highway-railroad crossing in West Springfield, Massachusetts.

Since at least 2014, CSX freight trains have caused extensive and regular traffic delays as shown in the photo below.

The cities of Agawam and West Springfield are directly connected by only three roads. Front Street, which sees almost 8,000 vehicles per day, is one of the three.

The time is now for this problem to be squarely addressed and resolved.

We intend for this page to increase the transparency and sharing of information regarding this issue for all interested parties.

Image of freight train blocking the Front Street crossing in West Springfield, Massachusetts.
Screenshot from the former Front Street crossing cam | June 2, 2020

Contents

Background information

The problem

Timeline

A possible solution to this problem

Dept. of Public Utilities Investigation

Footnotes

Further reading


Background information

The street

Front Street is a two-lane minor arterial road in the city of West Springfield, Massachusetts.

The average daily traffic count for the road was calculated to be 7,774 vehicles in 2019 (pre-covid).1

Notably it is one of only three roads between the cities of Agawam and West Springfield.

The railroad line

The railroad line at this location — which is known as the Berkshire Subdivision — is owned and maintained by CSX Transportation (CSX), whose headquarters is located in Jacksonville, Florida.

The maximum authorized speed on both tracks over this crossing is 40 mph, for both passenger and freight trains.

The highway-railroad crossing

The Front Street highway-railroad grade crossing (hereafter referred to as simply the Front Street crossing) is an intersection where Front Street crosses the CSX-owned railroad line at-grade.

The location of the crossing is shown on this Google Map —

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This crossing is considered a public grade crossing because the roadway crossing the tracks is under the jurisdiction of, and maintained by, a public authority — in this case, the Town of West Springfield.

This crossing has active warning and control devices (bells, flashing lights, and gates) in addition to passive warning devices such as pavement markings.

The crossing itself, including the warning/control devices, is owned and maintained by CSX.

Historical topographic maps indicate that there as been a railroad crossing at this location since at least 1889.

Federal Railroad Administration reference information

Grade crossing ID | 525901A

U.S. DOT Crossing Inventory Form – 525901A (PDF)
March 18, 2021

Summary of reported accidents at the crossing (since 1975)

04/15/1979 – no injuries / no damage amount listed
09/29/1980 – no injuries / no damage amount listed
03/02/2003 – no injuries / $2,000 damage to vehicle
02/11/2007 – no injuries / $4,500 damage to vehicle
02/06/2008 – no injuries / $4,500 damage to vehicle
04/17/2012 – no injuries / $2,000 damage to vehicle
09/14/2013 – no injuries / $1,000 damage to vehicle
10/31/2015 – 1 person injured / $7,500 damage to vehicle

Crossing 525901A Accident Reports – as Feb 2022 (PDF)


The problem

On an average weekday 16 trains2 pass over the Front Street crossing — 14 CSX freight trains, and 2 Amtrak intercity passenger trains.

Most of these trains pass though the crossing at or near the maximum authorized speed, which is 40 mph.

The length of time that a moving train takes to pass through the crossing is dependent on the speed of the train and the length of the train. As example — a freight train with 100 cars, moving at 40 mph, will take about two minutes to pass through the crossing.

But, as has been reported by the media and local elected officials, this crossing is being blocked on a regular basis by CSX freight trains that have stopped in the crossing. Observations from a video surveillance camera near the crossing show that when the crossing is blocked it remains blocked for a period of time that ranges from 20–90 minutes per occurrence.

A blocked crossing occurs when a stopped train impedes the flow of motor vehicle or pedestrian traffic at railroad tracks for extended periods of time.

This condition poses potential safety risks, specifically at locations where trains routinely hinder roadway and pedestrian movement for extended periods — as is happening at the Front Street crossing on a regular and ongoing basis.

Blocked crossings jeopardize public safety by hindering the movement of emergency vehicles.

Furthermore, blocked crossings make people late for work, school and appointments, and contribute to roadway congestion.

The image gallery below provides an example of what’s going on —

This sequence of seven images — screenshots from a video — was captured by a MassDOT surveillance camera at the crossing on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

The first image was captured at 12:15 PM and the last capture in the series was captured at 12:42 PM. The images clearly show that a CSX train was in the crossing, and blocking traffic, for at least 27 minutes.

Interestingly, image number 6 (captured at 12:39 PM) shows a locomotive (known as a distributed power unit in this case) in the middle of the train. The presence of a distributed power unit indicates that this is most likely a very long train.

So, why is the crossing being blocked?

Major freight railroads, including CSX, are running longer and longer trains on the U.S. rail network to reduce their costs. Simply put, longer trains have a lower operating cost per car than shorter trains.

To run longer trains out of its West Springfield rail yard CSX needs to use the mainline tracks to the west of its yard to build and breakdown its trains — in particular the trains that operate between CSX’s rail yards in West Springfield and Selkirk NY.

An example of this process can be seen in the satellite view in the image below —

Mittineague Bridge, West Springfield | Satellites.pro

If you click on the image you can clearly see a long train (blocking the crossing) that is pulling freight cars out of the West Springfield rail yard. (the train also could be pushing cars into the rail yard.)

How long are the trains that are blocking the crossing?

Its hard to say, since every freight train is a different length.

But as an example lets consider the the eastbound CSX freight that passed in front of a surveillance camera on the building at 36 Union Street in Westfield at about 8:15 AM on Friday morning, February 18, 2022.

This train consisted of three engines and 122 freight cars.

If it was moving, as it appeared, at the maximum authorized speed for this location (which is 50 mph), the length of the train would have been about 10,000 feet (1.9 miles).

To put that in perspective look at the map below —

West Springfield, MA | OpenRailwayMap.org

The distance (shown in yellow) from the Front Street crossing to the west end of the CSX rail yard is about 2,600 feet. (1/4 of the length of the train)

The distance from the Front Street crossing to the middle of the Connecticut River is about 10,000 feet.

Many of CSX’s trains simply won’t fit into the yard in West Springfield because the length of most freight trains on this line exceeds the physical size of the rail yard, which was built decades ago.


Timeline

January 13, 1967 | Businesses in West Springfield contact the Select board to complain that, “the two railroad track crossings on Front St are blocked at least twice a day, frequently for five to 10 minutes at a time, and occasionally for more than half an hour at a time.” (“Railroad Hit for Blocking Two Crossings,The Springfield Union)

January 20, 1967 | The railroad [the New York Central] responded within a week with assurances that the, “prolonged blockings of traffic on Front St will cease.” (“Street Blocking will Stop Railroad Says, The Springfield Union)

No further coverage of this issue was found in the Springfield newspapers until 2018.

2018

February 1, 2018 | Local residents establish a Facebook group called “Agawam/West Side Train Crossing – Train or No Train” to alert each other when the Front Street crossing is blocked.

February 23, 2018 | Mayor William Sapelli of Agawam and Mayor William Reichelt of West Springfield meet to discuss the blocked crossing problems and steps that could be taken to setup warning signs to alert drivers when the crossing is blocked.3

March 2018 | Representative Michael Finn and the mayors of Agawam and West Springfield met with representatives of CSX to discuss the Front Street crossing issue.3

March 21, 2018 | The mayors of Agawam and West Springfield met with Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ashe to discus the Front Street crossing issue.3

March 27, 2018 | The mayors of Agawam and West Springfield met with Congressman Richard Neal at his office in Springfield to discuss issues related to the Front Street crossing.3

June 2018 | The mayor of Agawam met with and MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack to discuss issues related o the Front Street crossing.3

August 13, 2018 | The mayors of Agawam and West Springfield met with Senator Donald Humason on this issue.3

October 26, 2018 | The mayors of Agawam and West Springfield met with MassDOT at the crossing to discuss the issue. Ironically a CSX train stopped and blocked the crossing during the meeting.3

October 31, 2018 | The mayors of Agawam and West Springfield, working together, push CSX to find a solution to the ongoing traffic blockages at the Front Street crossing, as reported by The Republican.

2019

January 19, 2019 | The mayor of Agawam discussed the Front Street crossing issue with Senator Markey at the Massachusetts Municipal Association Meeting.3

June 2019 | MassDOT installed warning signs at the corners of 2nd Av & Westfield St, Summit Ave & Westfield St, and Ashley and First Street in West Springfield to alert motorists when the crossing is blocked by a train. Similar signs were installed in Agawam.

Corner of 2nd Street and Westfield Street, West Springfield, MA | Google Maps

December 20, 2019 | Federal Railroad Administration launches a web portal for the public to report blocked railroad crossings. The portal is available on this link — fra.dot.gov/blockedcrossings/

2021

March 9, 2021 | The Department of Public Utilities (DPU) voted to open an investigation to consider whether CSX Transportation is in violation of G.L. c. 160, § 151. Obstruction of public way by railroad. (the DPU docket for this case is linked in the section below.)

March 22, 2021 | West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt hosted a virtual forum to seek public comments regarding the blocked railroad crossing issue at Front Street. (A recording of the forum is available on this link — West Springfield CSX Public Forum)

March 30, 2021 | Congressman Richard Neal issues a Public Statement for the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities’ CSX Hearing regarding the Front Street crossing situation.

July 7, 2021 | The Town of West Springfield Planning Board met to consider CSX’s application to make site improvements at their location at Day Street and Western Avenue. The Chair of the Planning Board said, “There have been several issues with CSX in general, whether it’s blocking the railroad tracks, trash, trucks going up and down Union Street … there’s a lot of animosity with citizens and we as a board hear it constantly, …” CSX’s application was continued until the July 21, 2022 meeting.

July 21, 2021 | After further discussion, CSX’s application for site improvements on its property were approved by the Planning Board.


A possible solution to this problem

There is no quick and easy solution to the blocked crossing problem at Front Street.

Local, state and federal elected officials have attempted to address this problem with CSX for years.

And while there are laws on the books in Massachusetts (G.L. c. 160, § 151) that make it illegal for railroads to block crossings for a long period of time, when pushed the railroads often argue in court that state laws do not apply because the many federal regulations and statutes that apply to them preempt state law.

Thankfully, the recently signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) may provide a solution to this problem.

Section 22305 of the BIL provides for a new “Railroad Crossing Elimination Program” grant program, which is summarized in this FRA Fact Sheet —

With more that $3 billion dollars in federal funding available to improve railroad crossing safety now would be an ideal time for the appropriate authorities to seek funding to build an overpass over the crossing at (or near) this location.

If you think this idea is worthy of consideration please take the time to reach out to your elected officials to let them know.

West Springfield

Mayor William Reichelt | Town of West Springfield

Representative Nicholas Boldyga | 3rd Hampden District

Senator Adam Gomez | Hampden District

Agawam

Mayor William Sapelli | Town of Agawam

Representative Michal Finn | 6th Hampden District

Senator John Velis | Second Hampden and Hampshire District


Dept. of Public Utilities Investigation | Docket 21-31

Vote and Order Opening Investigation (PDF)
DPU Docket 21-31 | March 9, 2021

Comments of the Town of West Springfield
By Mayor William C. Reichelt | March 30, 2021
Part 1 / Part 2 (PDF)

Comments of the Town of Agawam (PDF)
By Mayor William P. Sapelli | March 29, 2021

Link to Department of Public Utilities (DPU) Docket 21-31
(enter the docket number [which is 21-31] and select “Go”)
Investigation by the DPU its own motion to consider whether CSX Transportation, Inc. is in Violation of G.L. c. 160, § 151.


Footnotes

1 Front Street crossing traffic cont data. Location ID RPA03-325-9933, MassDOT Transportation Data Management System

2 Observations from a surveillance camera on the building at 36 Union Street in Westfield between February 15–18, 2022.

3West Springfield CSX Public Forum,” Facebook video, March 22, 2021


Further reading

Impact of Blocked Highway/Rail Grade Crossings (PDF)
Federal Railroad Administration | August 2006

Highway-Rail Crossing Handbook, 3rd Edition
U.S. Department of Transportation | July 2019

Freight Trains Are Getting Longer, and Additional Information Is Needed to Assess Their Impact
United States Government Accountability Office | July 2019

Railroad Legal Issues and Resources
National Academy of Science | 2019

Page last updated: March 11, 2022
Page last updated: February 20, 2022