DADE CITY — A CSX Transportation official met with Dade City commissioners Tuesday evening to offer an apology for two recent incidents where CSX trains blocked streets east of the city for several hours
On July 11, a CSX train blocked Tuskegee Avenue, Martin Luther King Boulevard and River Road for six hours. On Aug. 19, another train blocked the same streets, the Dade City Business Center and Pioneer Museum Road. CSX told city officials that in both incidents dispatchers told train conductors to shut down the trains and quit for the day. The conductors had reached the 12-hour limit for their work day under federal guidelines.
“Both these incidents were over crew changes where they just stopped the train and got off,” said Bob O’Malley, a CSX vice president for Florida. “And there are hours of service laws, but that’s not an excuse. Dispatch should have known they were getting close and there’s no excuse for that so I apologize for it.
“We have elevated the issue within the company and have taken steps to address the issue. Dispatchers have been instructed that any crew change would not be scheduled for Dade City. So they are to take place north of Dade City or south of Dade City,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, has called for a Federal Railroad Administration investigation into the incidents.
“Senior officials within this federal agency with jurisdictional oversight have assured me that they will conduct a thorough investigation into what occurred in both cases and take proactive steps to ensure that similar incidents are avoided,” Bilirakis wrote in a letter to the editor sent to The Tampa Tribune.
“I also called leaders within CSX to put them on notice that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Bilirakis said.
After the first stoppage, Billy Poe, city manager of Dade City, sent a letter of complaint to the railroad company, saying the stoppage could have hampered safety personnel from responding to calls in a timely manner.
“This thoughtless action on the part of your crew created a tremendous strain on our ability to provide essential public safety services,” Poe wrote. “The blocking of this neighborhood, without so much as a phone call, is unconscionable.”
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco also wrote a letter to the CSX chairman, saying the company’s actions in blocking roadways for hours amounted to “willful negligence.”
O’Malley also gave his cell phone to city commissioners and invited them to call him when needed.
“Probably the most important thing, and the biggest mistake, and the thing I want to apologize the most for, is we need to do a better job of communicating and giving you advanced notice,” O’Malley said. “Everyone [at CSX] is on notice to do that as well.”
O’Malley took some of the heat for the escalation of the problem, stating that he had been on vacation during the first incident and thought that the issue had been handled.
O’Malley said that he had met with the police chief and other police representatives prior to the meeting with the commissioners. “We appreciate all their help in managing the blocked crossings,” he said.
“Is this going to happen again?” asked Commissioner Bill Dennis.
“Commissioner, we operate about 1,400 trains a day so I don’t want to promise that it’s never going to happen again,” O’Malley said. “The crew shifts, which is really the cause of the problem, shouldn’t happen.”
But, O’Malley said, an emergency could result in a train blockage.
“That’s where the crew has been instructed that if they have to hold it up on the side, to break the train at the crossings, to free up those crossings and more importantly, communicate with your law enforcement,” he said.
Poe asked how long it would take to break up the train in such a case. He asked if it might take up to an hour.
“An hour is too long,” O’Malley said. “It should be less than that.”
Later, Poe said that he liked that O’Malley came in for a face-to-face visit with the commission to offer the company’s apology on the record, that he assumed some of the blame and put himself on the spot for any question the commissioners might ask.