MUNCIE, Ind. — Since early last week, residents, officials and commuters traveling in Muncie have been forced to find new routes amid railroad crossing closures across the city.
“Infrastructure work is going to inconvenience people anyway. It’s always wonderful in the end when it’s finished and they leave, but this was not — it’s not an ideal situation,” said Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour.
According to a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern Corporation, the railroad company notified city government in early August about the upcoming rail work. While Ridenour said that information is accurate, he said the city was not given specifics on the work itself.
“They informed the city that we’re going to replace the railroads. That’s what I would confirm that we were told. At that point, they said all of them on this particular line, but they did not tell us they were going to do the east side first, the west side second; that was not communicate,” said Ridenour. “Yes we knew, but number one, we didn’t know exactly when they were going to start and we didn’t know where they were going to start, so that was the challenge.”
Norfolk Southern said its team remained in constant communication with city officials, who shared, they felt they were kept in the dark on specific plans until the week prior to construction beginning.
“Two weeks ago, about this time, it was a Thursday I believe, they notified us and said, we’re going to start Monday and that was the phone call. We didn’t know where. We reached back out and were finally able to determine that,” said Ridenour. “We sent a press release out, a Facebook post, but they didn’t give us a lot of notice, which meant it didn’t give a lot of notice to the public.”
Ridenour said the city engineer worked with the railroad corporation to make sure the work was done in parts and that the entire city was not closed at once, which would have been several miles of roads.
“We said, only have one hospital, it’s north of the tracks, so at least do one side of the city and then the other. They did the east side of the city, Walnut, right downtown and east, they did that last week, and this week they’re working west and just about finished, so we’re excited about that,” Ridenour said.
Still, despite efforts to coordinate with the railroad company with the notice they were given, city officials said they were unable to help drivers avoid the headache altogether.
“It’s a real challenge, not only for us and trying to coordinate public safety, but with the public trying to get to and from work, and to and from school,” Ridenour said.
With closures to the railroad came concerns from public safety officials about needing to detour in events of an emergency.
“I believe we were at 12 [closures] when they started the project, and obviously for a city this size, that’s a big impact to public safety response, especially when seconds, even minutes, especially at that point, matter when you have to divert and go different ways,” said Muncie Police Department Deputy Chief Christopher Deegan.
“It just creates a logistical nightmare when we have this many road closures,” Deegan added.
Although the city itself is split into areas patrolled by MPD, and the fire department has stations on both sides of the track, police said it’s easier said than done to talk about diverting in the event of an emergency or relying on another agency to take a call, when many are taken in conjunction with one another.
“I think it’s a general public safety concern across-the-board. When you’re talking about emergency response, there’s not too many things that we as a police department may respond to, that the fire department doesn’t respond to, and vice versa,” Deegan explained.
With construction cutting through one of the city’s main thoroughfares at Tillotson Avenue, which runs by Ball State University and IU Health Ball Memorial, officials said it has been an added challenge for people.
“We have so many local schools in town, the universities in town, we have a critical care hospital in town that has to be staffed with employees,” said Deegan. “When you’re responding to an emergency like that, you revert back to your training, and your training is taking the best, most efficient route possible.”
City officials said, as they learned of the closures each day, they worked to communicate and coordinate with public safety officials to be as prepared as possible.
“There had to be massive coordination by police, within their department, EMS within their department, and with the fire department. Once we knew what was going to happen for that particular day, we tried to notify them and have arrangements,” said Ridenour.
Still, regardless of the number of days or weeks given to notify that work would be done, Deegan said in an emergency, all of the factors come into play.
“It doesn’t matter the amount of time that we are given, when you start talking about impacting that many intersections, it’s just not that safe,” Deegan shared.
He described the traffic patterns the last week and a half as ‘congested.’
“Everybody needs to take the same detour routes and detour roads are not normally main thoroughfares. That can get kind of bogged down,” Deegan said.
When asked why work happened the way it did, with the closures put in place, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said, it was the only way to complete the needed rail work.
Their team of around 100, also known as “Norfolk Southern’s R-03 dual-rail gang” is the only one of its kind in North America, according to Norfolk Southern.
The company said the group works on critical parts of the network, doing what it would normally take traditional track gangs weeks to do, in a matter of days. They are able to replace both rails on the track at the same time in huge sections, about 1,500 feet long, each.
Once rail work is done, Norfolk Southern said it is done in succession, working simultaneously down the line. This regular maintenance, according to a spokesperson, is performed across the railroad’s entire network, including places like Ohio and Michigan.
A company spokesperson shared the following statement with FOX59 News:
“We know this work can be an inconvenience to communities, which is why we work with local authorities in advance to provide information and collaborate on planning. Once work begins, we work as quickly and as safely as possible to complete it and re-open affected crossings. We appreciate the public’s patience while we perform this important maintenance to keep our trains running safely through Muncie.“Norfolk Southern Corp. Spokesperson
Residents also shared their frustrations on the impacts, including one woman, who said she was unable to visit a friend she helps care for, who suffered a stroke last year.
“Nobody can get anywhere, you know, and it raises your blood pressure,” said Kim Kirk. “I can’t even get to my best friend in the nursing home, because I can’t figure out how to get there, and I’ve lived here forever.”
Kirk said she is frustrated by the challenges she’s faced the last two weeks while trying to get to places she needed to be.
“I mean, this is impacting everyone,” said Kirk. “There is no detour signs. I’d be a lot happier if there were, that would’ve been a common courtesy.”
Kirk said she was told, when she went into Walgreens two days before, that there was pharmacy technician who was unable to make it to work due to the closures and construction. She worried for not only residents and first responders, but commuters trying to make it to work to help others and make a living.
According to the railroad company, work is slated to be complete by Thursday on rails across Muncie, and the remaining crossings will open up. They will continue working through Alexandria, a company spokesperson said, by next week.
Part of the reason the crossings needed to stay closed for the periods of time they did, railroad officials shared, is due to pavement needing to be replaced when replacing the rails. On Wednesday, city firefighters helped cool down spots recently paved, by adding water to ensure the process continues moving.
“I am very thrilled that this will be ending up, hopefully tomorrow for our city, and then the next city can hopefully learn from our challenges and make it a little better for theirs,” said Ridenour. “We appreciate them replacing and putting in new rail lines. My understanding is there has not been a derailed train in this town for 20 something years and that only happens if you do the routine maintenance.”
Kirk shared that she is looking forward to the end of the construction and closures. City officials echoed the same statement, while also sharing gratitude for the outcome it will bring with it.
“I’ll believe it when I see it. They didn’t tell us when it was coming, they didn’t tell us when it was going to end,” said Kirk.
“There’s definitely some relief on the public safety side that this is coming to an end soon,” said Deegan.