Two rough railroad crossings in Hagerstown stirred town officials to public criticism of what they say is an unresponsive corporation.

A busy Norfolk Southern Railroad track crosses at about 600 S. Washington St. It crosses South Street a few blocks east. Town Council discussed both on March 4.

A truck vs. train crash at the Washington Street crossing spurred the discussion. On Feb. 20, a semi being driven north tried to cross the tracks. The trailer got stuck on the tracks. As the driver tried to figure out how to move the trailer, the crossing gates came down. A train hit the trailer, demolishing it and heavily damaging its load of truck axles bound for the Autocar Company factory just north of the crossing, said Keith Folkner, police chief. 

No one was hurt but the crash damaged the railroad crossing and caused a power outage at the factory, he said. It took about three hours to clear. Norfolk Southern rerouted rail traffic, he said.

The crossing has been a sore spot for the town for many years, officials said. The tracks are higher than the street. Pavement on both sides of the tracks is steep enough that many vehicles drag bottom when crossing, as evidenced by scrape marks on the street. Pavement also has deteriorated, making the crossing very rough.

Some years ago, the town put a yellow warning sign south of the tracks with a graphic of a low-boy trailer dragging on the track.

Council members asked if the railroad has been asked to make the approaches less steep. 

Fire Chief Rick Cole said fire trucks have a hard time getting over the crossing. When Folkner said he had been told the railroad might be planning to fix the crossing in June, Cole retorted, “But what year?”

Still, that is more information than Chris LaMar, town manager, had. He told Western Wayne News that he has tried to contact Norfolk Southern several times about that crossing during his nearly 10 years as town manager, and had no response from them.

Town attorney Jon Madison said railroads are governed by the Federal Railroad Administration instead of local governments. “Railroads are notorious for playing by their own rules. … (Towns) don’t have much leverage.”

Council also discussed the South Street crossing. There, the railroad dug two narrow trenches across the street, paralleling the existing rails. Gravel fill placed in the trenches sank about an inch below pavement, creating a bumpy crossing.

When contacted Thursday, a railroad spokesman told Western Wayne News that Norfolk Southern dug temporary trenches across South Street and buried new rails there. Those will replace the existing rails “later this year,” reported Connor A. Spielmaker, senior communications manager for Norfolk Southern media relations, and “… as a result, we will also be completely repaving the crossings.”

Spielmaker was working with company officials to find out about plans for Washington Street.

LaMar told Western Wayne News on Friday that he believes fixing the problems would be in the railroad’s best interest and that Norfolk Southern should initiate more conversation. In addition to carrying vehicular traffic, the crossing is used hundreds of times daily by Autocar employees who park in lots south of the tracks and walk across the crossing to the factory.

In other business at the meeting, a Pearl Street resident complained of being attacked by “at least six dogs” in the past two years, including one on March 2. Some attacks did not involve dogs biting her or her dog. She asked the council to consider better posting of dog regulations, having a hot line for dog bite reports, building a dog park, providing an all-call phone system to notify residents of dog attacks and enforcing state dog laws in addition to local ordinances.

Council President Allan Bullock said Folkner told him that police cited the dog owner in the recent attack for a violation of the law. 

Folkner said Hagerstown Police use state statutes for animal control and they do address bites and attacks with the owners. In his 13 years with HPD, he could recall one dog attack on a person, and that animal was removed from the owner.

The council scheduled a special meeting on Monday, March 18, to discuss how to pay for water system replacement. The meeting will follow a 6:30 p.m. public hearing about a preliminary engineering report needed for an application for funding of drinking water supply system replacement. The next regular council meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 1. Both public meetings will be in Town Hall, 49 E. College St.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13 2024 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Bob Hansen is a reporter for the Western Wayne News.