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Stopped Trains Vex 10th Ward Neighbors

Residents want engines moved or turned off; railroad, federal officials issue statements

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 01, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Editor’s Note: The writer has a conflict of interest. See note at the end of this story.

“Try to sleep,” said Alvin Decker of this CSX Railroad train that was parked — engines still running — behind his home for 72 hours last week. A federal spokeswoman said there are no regulations about how long a train can idle. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Alvin Decker has lived in the city’s 10th Ward since 1950 — long enough ago to remember when steam engines pounded the rails on the tracks behind his Pacific Avenue home.

But the noise, he said, was nothing like the racket created by CSX Railroad’s diesel engines when they park — still running — for hours, and sometimes days, at a time.

It happens several times a month, said Decker and other neighbors.

Last week, a CSX freight train stopped Wednesday morning with its diesel engines running. It didn’t leave until Friday afternoon — more than 72 hours later.

“Try to get to sleep,” said Decker, 90. His next-door neighbor is 82 years old, he said, and a wall in her back yard has collapsed due to the vibration and noise.

“She’s not in good health,” Decker said. “She doesn’t deserve this.”

Tube City Almanac used a sound-level meter to measure the noise. From the sidewalk in front of the Decker home, the noise level on Friday measured approximately 80 decibels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, levels above 80 dB are considered “harmful” and exposure to those levels for more than two hours can cause permanent hearing loss.

On Friday afternoon, every three to five minutes, an air valve would release pressure for 30 to 60 seconds.

At those times, sound levels would shoot to between 95 and 100 dB — about the same level as a motorcycle engine up close, according to CDC charts.

A reading taken with a consumer-grade decibel meter at the Deckers’ side-door measured nearly 100 dB when an air-pressure valve released, approximately every three to five minutes. A federal spokeswoman who asked not to be identified said “our investigators have set rules to follow while measuring decibel levels” and that such measurements may not be accurate. (Tube City Almanac video)

Decker’s daughter Alberta said she’s called city officials and the Allegheny County Health Department, all of whom have said the railroad is immune to local regulations under federal law.

“The county told me they can’t do anything about it — ‘the railroad only answers to God,’” she said.

Alberta Decker said she’s also called U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills, and the CSX railroad itself.

“Nobody calls me back,” she said. When the neighbor’s wall collapsed, “I called (the CSX) emergency number. They don’t care. I’ve given up on them.”

George Anderson, who lives on the opposite side of Pacific Avenue, said he doesn’t object to the railroad running trains — just the idling.

“Shut it off or take it down the street where nobody lives,” he said. Although the railroad tracks are lined with fences, there's a opening at Perry Street, Anderson said, adding the crews “probably don’t want to have to walk too far away from that open gate.”

A spokeswoman for CSX said Friday the railroad will look into the issue.

“CSX’s goal is to keep freight moving safely and efficiently in the communities in which we operate,” Cindy Schild, CSX director of media relations and public affairs, said in a prepared statement.

“Some circumstances, such as when a train may experience a mechanical issue, lose power or when the crew exceeds their federally-mandated allotted time to operate a train, something that is mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration, are examples of what could result lead to an idling train.

“We work as quickly as possible to get an idling train moving,” Schild wrote. “We understand idling trains can be disruptive and inconvenient to the public. CSX remains focused on safe, fluid rail operations through McKeesport and across our network as we diligently serve the area businesses who depend on freight rail.”

A spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C., who asked not to be identified said “there is no federal regulation or statute regarding how long trains may idle.”

“Railroads often allow trains to idle to prevent safety and operational issues — retaining necessary air brake pressure and preventing water draining from the locomotive,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “There are regulations regarding train noise emission. The Federal Railroad Administration has investigated noise complaints and often finds that the railroad is in compliance.”

The FRA spokesperson also questioned the accuracy of Tube City Almanac’s measurements: “Please keep in mind that our investigators have set rules to follow while measuring decibel levels. This includes standing a standard distance from the locomotive.”

She referred follow-up questions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates diesel emissions “and may be able to provide additional information.”

Whether by coincidence or not, about one hour after Tube City Almanac began asking questions of CSX and federal officials, the train was moved.

Alberta Decker said she also received a call from someone at Doyle’s office.

Conflict of Interest Note: The writer has a conflict of interest. He is a stockholder in CSX Railroad’s parent company.

Originally published May 01, 2022.

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