Railroad repairs out of city hands, but public notice a key factor in reducing complaints

In Champaign, railroad companies periodically say they will make repairs, but the city has no say over construction projects and costs. 

Some repairs, including resurfacing, cause redirection of traffic for upwards of a week that has to be managed by the city. Its only involvement is blocking off the streets, helping with redirection and posting updates on the city’s website. 

When it comes to fielding complaints and setting dates for repairs, it is fully up to the railroad companies. The Illinois Commerce Commission also fields complaints and periodically makes recommendations to the railroad companies. 

Two main railroads pass through Champaign, which are operated and maintained by Norfolk Southern and Canadian National. According to both companies, each railroad is checked annually and there’s typically some work to be done. 

Chris Sokolowski from the Champaign Public Works Department said the biggest challenge is actually scheduling the repairs. 

The last time there were repairs on any of the crossings in Champaign was in early September of 2022 when Norfolk Southern resurfaced the crossing’s asphalt surface to improve rideability for drivers. 

It resurfaced five crossings along Bradley Avenue between University Avenue and Fifth Street. At the time, it was delayed for a week due to scheduling issues.

One year later, Sokolowski, a city engineer for transportation for the city, confirmed the construction was successful and “continues to ride better than prior to the repairs.”

He also said when construction like this happens, it often means road closures for an entire work week, sometimes more. Last year, these particular repairs lasted one week and led to increased traffic congestion in several areas, mostly along Fourth Street and nearby stop signs. 

“The closures impact commuters and residents as far as their route to and from work, as well as any other trips they may typically cross the tracks for,” he said. 

However, Sokolowski said complaints from citizens during closures are minimal as long as they are given a heads-up. This usually comes in the form of a press release, given on the railroad company’s behalf by the city municipality. 

Most of the citizen comments that come in are inquiries about when the roads will reopen instead of complaints, he said. 

“People who drive the crossings regularly are usually happy the crossing is being improved,” he said. 

Instead of the street closures, he said the biggest logistical challenge the city faces is scheduling the repairs and ensuring the repairs happen on time. 

“We receive requests for crossing repairs but actually do not have any authority over the railroad companies,” he said.

The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) is the only entity with authority related to the railroads. Any repairs or construction goes through them and routes to Norfolk Southern or Canadian National. 

Either the railroad company decides on its own to make a repair, or the ICC has received citizen complaints about road quality and directs the company to work with the local government. 

For the construction last year, Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said it was routine maintenance. The work involved replacing railroad ties and pavement for a smoother surface. 

He said the repairs from September 2022 are a great example of how they maintain all of the railroads and ensure that each one is up to regulation. 

“The gang that came through was our dual-rail gang, a 100-person crew comprised of about 50 machines that are able to replace both rails in a piece of track at the same time,” Spielmaker said. “It’s the only crew like it in North America, if not the world.”

He said this type of crew only comes through once every ten years because tracks last a long time and don’t need that type of major maintenance often. 

Annually, however, Spielmaker said they invest over $1 billion on average into infrastructure alone which allows them to have multiple ways to keep the tracks safe. 

In between big repairs, the railroad company has local track inspectors routinely inspect tracks and work with local road contractors to flag any potential issues. It also has special equipment that can ride the rails and conduct inspections using various instruments. 

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