Rail Mobility & Reliability

Train Volume

Approximately 137 trains travel in the OKI region daily. The greatest number of trains, over 100 per day, travel through the heart of the OKI region along CSX’s Cincinnati Terminal Subdivision track between Mitchell Street, just north of CSX’s Queensgate Yard, and Longworth Hall, just south of NS’ Gest Street Yard. In contrast, Cincinnati Eastern Railroad only averages about two trains a day along Norfolk Southern’s (NS) Peavine Corridor in eastern Hamilton and Clermont counties. Following CSX, NS and the Indiana & Ohio Railway (IORY) operate the other majority of daily trains in the region.

Depending on the location, rail grade crossings in the OKI region handle zero to 40 daylight through trains and zero to 30 nighttime through trains per day. One hundred, eighty-eight rail grade crossings serve less than one train per day. There are 29 rail grade crossings in the region that average only one train per week.

In addition to freight activities, passenger trains operate on the region’s rail network. Amtrak trains run the Cardinal route through the OKI region via 5.4 miles of CSX’s Cincinnati Terminal Subdivision track. There are over 100 freight trains per day on this same track. Amtrak services Cincinnati six times a week (three times traveling from Chicago to New York City on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and three times traveling west from New York City to Chicago on Monday, Thursday, Saturday). Amtrak arrivals and departures occur in the early morning hours due to the heavy demand from freight rail traffic.

Train Speeds

We are all familiar with posted speed limits along our roadways. Like roads, there are speed limits for rail tracks measured in miles per hour (mph) that must be adhered to by trains. Track speed is determined by the Federal Rail Administration’s (FRA) classification of track which is based on several factors such as curvature, signaling, track condition and the presence of grade crossings.

CSX and NS are the region’s only railroads that operate trains at the highest speeds of 45mph to 80mph which are represented by track Classes 4 and 5. However, these higher speed trains only comprise about 20 percent of all daily trains in the region. The greatest number of trains moving in the OKI region, 37 percent, are traveling at a maximum speed of only 10mph on Class 1 track.

Rail Chokepoints

From the perspective of the railroad operators, mobility and reliability can be affected by several different factors. High train volumes, rail yard switching movements, and lack of sufficient rail infrastructure such as track sidings may force trains to stop more frequently or for longer lengths of time until the tracks or yard are clear for travel. Reoccurring stopped trains cause congestion and become rail chokepoints for the industry.

During the development of Transport Ohio, the state freight plan, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) surveyed all Class I and Short Line railroads operating in the state. Responses from these surveys identified factors causing rail chokepoints within the OKI region.

The railroads reported issues of service delay occurring in Cincinnati and specifically at the NS Sharonville Intermodal Facility. The cause of service delay was attributed to the lack of drivers or containers needed in the transport of intermodal freight between trucks and rail.

Another issue identified in the surveys was the lack of available rail cars. This issue was noted generally for the Queensgate Area of Cincinnati where the NS Gest Street Intermodal Facility and CSX Transportation Queensgate Yard are located.

Impact of Rail Chokepoints on Public Rail Grade Crossings

When rail traffic is congested and chokepoints occur, the situation can often create a second impact — the blockage of rail grade crossings which delay roadway users and stagnate mobility and reliability.

OKI knows firsthand from some communities that blockage is an issue. The Hamilton County communities of Reading, Lockland and Sharonville have shared their concerns regarding frequent blocked rail grade crossings to OKI and the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC). The traffic volumes of roadways and the cost of developing grade separations in highly urbanized, developed areas adds a layer of complexity that requires a regional examination.

In 2020, the ORDC and their consultant team conducted an Ohio Rail Crossing Pilot Study. The study’s objective was to develop, apply and validate a methodology to evaluate the relative impact of occupied public rail grade crossings on motorized road users and non-motorized users, such as bicyclists and pedestrians. The study utilized several datasets related to public importance, delay, redundancy, and safety. The result of this study was the creation of an “Adaptive Capacity Score”, or ACS, which helps provide an empirical basis to identify crossings for potential improvement.

OKI staff applied ORDC’s ACS methodology to create an ACS tool for all public rail grade crossings in the eight-county region. For various criteria, each public rail grade crossing receives an ACS point value ranging from zero to five. The higher the ACS value, the greater the impact to users of the public roadway. In the discussion that follows, we will present several findings based on information obtained through the ACS tool.

OKI wants to emphasize that the datasets used in the ACS calculations are intended to provide a snapshot of public rail grade crossing conditions across a variety of different factors. To confirm the conditions at any crossing, data collection, communication with the railroad operator and other stakeholders in the area, and further site-specific study should be conducted prior to any crossing improvement or closure.

Overall Rail ACS

Within the ACS tool, there is an overall rail ACS value for both motorized roadway users and non-motorized users which is determined by the combined impact of four factors:

  • Delay to road users – the expected magnitude of delay to road users (motorized and non-motorized) due to occupancy of the crossing by a train.
  • Redundancy – proximity to other locations where roadway users can cross the tracks unimpeded.
  • Public importance – how important a crossing is for roadway users based on how much traffic uses the crossing and the types of land use on either side of the grade crossing.
  • Safety – a ranking of hazard risk at the crossing. This factor has already been discussed under the Rail Safety webpage.

By examining the Rail ACS value, we find that Butler County is home to the number one least safe, least redundant, highest delay, and highest publicly important crossing for motorized roadway users in the OKI region at SR 127 in Milford Township. This crossing is over six miles from the nearest grade separated rail crossing. In fact, Butler and Hamilton counties encompass the entire top 10 list of crossings for this composite score. NS is the railroad operator for eight of the top 10 Rail ACS crossings for motorized road users.

The overall Rail ACS value for non-motorized users identifies Hamilton County’s crossing at Round Bottom Road in Newtown as the number one least safe, least redundant, highest delay, and highest publicly important crossing in the OKI region. All top 10 crossings are in very close proximity to a school, park, or recreational center. The non-motorized Rail ACS list includes a wider range of counties, although all are in Ohio.

Rail Grade Crossing Delay

The public rail grade crossing delay ACS calculation uses data such as the crossing’s average number of trains per day, distance to the closest rail siding or yard, the posted maximum train speed, and the road’s average daily traffic count. Upon closer examination of those crossings that reported the highest ACS values for motorized vehicle delay, the Center Hill Avenue crossing in Elmwood Place received the highest ranking. This calculation gives us our first Kentucky crossing to appear in an ACS list at Decoursey Avenue in Covington. Every crossing in the list is with one of our Class I railroads and located very close to a rail siding or yard.

Rail Grade Crossing Redundancy

The rail redundancy ACS calculation uses data such as the crossing’s proximity to the nearest grade separated crossing (overpass or underpass) and the road’s average daily traffic count. Upon closer examination of those crossings that are found to be the least redundant meaning they are far from other locations where vehicles can cross the tracks unimpeded, so they are most needed to ensure road mobility, Butler County has the top three crossings and an additional five crossings in the top 10 list. The distance of some crossings to the nearest rail overpass or underpass ranges from just under two miles to almost six and a half miles.

OKI also examined the rail redundancy ACS for non-motorized roadway users. This calculation used the same data as motorized vehicles and added the factor of the crossing’s proximity to bike and pedestrian traffic generators such as schools, parks, and recreational centers.

The previous calculations report the top 10 crossings most needed by motorized and non-motorized roadway users for redundancy. Acknowledging the railroads’ interest in closing rail grade crossings to minimize safety risks and improve train operational reliability, as well as the public’s interest in reducing the need for train horns, OKI examined the other end of the rail redundancy ACS spectrum. The result is the creation of two additional lists consisting of the Bottom 10 crossings in the OKI region for redundancy – meaning the crossings are those least needed in the region for mobility by motorized and non-motorized roadway users.

The findings for the bottom, most redundant crossings for motorized roadway users are all located in Kenton or Boone counties. The proximity of the nearest grade separated crossing range from only a tenth of a mile to a third of a mile, hence the crossings’ high redundancy values.

Conversely, the findings for the bottom, most redundant crossings for non-motorized roadway users are located much more widely throughout the OKI region in six of the eight member counties. Once again, the proximity of the nearest grade separated crossing for each crossing in the list ranges from 0.02 to only a third of a mile.

Rail Grade Crossing Public Importance

Contrasting with redundancy, the ACS tool also measured the Public Importance of crossings for connectivity and mobility between the two sides of the crossing for the public in three categories — motorized, non-motorized, and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Fire vehicles. To determine the public importance to EMS/Fire vehicles, the location of fire stations and hospitals was noted. A blocked crossing could negatively impact EMS/Fire vehicles by creating longer travel times to incidents putting people’s lives and properties at greater risk.

The Top 10 list for the most publicly important rail grade crossings in the region for connectivity of motorized vehicles contains six in Hamilton County. Fixed route transit service was also examined for these top 10. Only one crossing in Madiera on Miami Avenue carries a bus line.

In terms of bicyclists, pedestrians, and other non-motorized travel, eight of the top 10 most publicly important crossings are in Hamilton County. Once again by measuring the proximity to schools, parks and recreational centers, the ACS reflects the lower ability of pedestrians and bicycles to detour around a blocked crossing.

Train Lengths

The issue of train length is a topic of interest in the OKI region due its connection to rail grade crossing blockages. The longer the train, the more extensive the potential negative impact of the blockage becomes. A 2019 Report published by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) entitled RAIL SAFETY: Freight Trains Are Getting Longer, and Additional Information Is Needed to Assess Their Impact found that “freight train length has increased in recent years, according to all seven Class I freight railroads. Data on train length are not publicly available; however, data provided to GAO by two Class I railroads indicated that their average train length has increased by about 25 percent since 2008, with average lengths of 1.2 and 1.4 miles in 2017.” This average train length translates into an engine pulling approximately 108 rail cars which is roughly 1.3 miles in length.

Equivalent lengths are provided for barges, trains, and trucks to compare average lengths between the freight modes. One 15-barge tow is 0.25 mile. Two, 108-car trains are 2.6 miles. One thousand-fifty large semis/tractor trailers are 13.9 miles (bumper to bumper).

Freight Modal Comparison of Equivalent Length
Source: Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Center for Ports and Waterways. A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General Public: 2001-2019. (January 2022).

The GAO report also notes that, “officials from all seven Class I railroads said they are currently operating longer than average trains on specific routes, although some said such trains are a small percentage of the trains they operate. One railroad said it runs a three-mile-long train twice weekly. Officials identified increased efficiencies and economic benefits among the advantages of longer freight trains.”

The aerial image shows a train 2.2 miles in length traveling on a CSX Main Line located in the OKI region during the Spring of 2021. This image is an illustration that trains of longer than average length appear to be operating in the OKI region. The impact of these longer trains occurs when trains are forced to stop due to rail congestion or other factors and block rail grade crossings. We have already discussed the impact blocked crossings have upon roadway vehicular safety, delay and increased travel time and distance to find alternative routes. However, an even larger mobility and safety issue occurs when a stopped train blocks one or more crossings to result in preventing no alternative means of access into or out of a residential, commercial, or industrial area.

Aerial view of hundreds of homes and grid neighborhood street networks. A long yellow outline resembling a pool noodle encircles a train and railroad track running through the middle of this view.

2.2 Mile-Long Train Operating in the OKI Region
Source: NearMap. (March 5, 2021).

Train Cut-Off Islands

One example of an extensive crossing blockage that occurs in the OKI region today exists in St. Clair Township in Butler County at three NS rail grade crossings with Mill Street, Spring Street, and Fear Not Mills Road. Butler County officials report that when a train is stopped, it often blocks all three crossings simultaneously, completing cutting off access for approximately 235 residences and one business. The distance from Mill Street, the most northern crossing, to Fear Not Mills Street, the most southern crossing, is approximately 1.5 miles or about the length of what the GAO Report termed as a “longer than average” train.

The Fear Not Mills Street crossing is approximately three miles north of a rail intersection with a CSX Double Track. The NS track carries an average of 35 trains a day. The CSX track north of the St. Clair Township intersection with NS averages 28 trains per day and the CSX track south of the intersection handles about 60 trains per day each. From a cursory examination of the rail infrastructure and daily train volumes in this area, the cause for the blockage may be due to train congestion and the dependence upon cooperation between these two Class I railroads for safe and efficient operations. The likely protocol is that southbound NS trains must stop and wait to access the CSX tracks to continue their trips into Cincinnati. Almost certainly, CSX would give priority to their own trains. Although the St. Clair Township crossings are located well over an average train length away from the CSX intersection, the positioning of rail signals may force NS trains to stop well in advance of the CSX intersection, hence causing the three St. Clair Township crossing blockages.

A pink line slashes vertically from top left to bottom right. The line has three yellow circles with “RR” in black lettering at points that intersect with white lines. The white lines form a triangle within which there are about 200 little squares.

St. Clair Township Train Cut-Off Island
Source: The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). (2022).

Having learned of the St. Clair Township’s multiple blocked-crossings issue, OKI staff questioned if other similar train cut-off areas or islands existed elsewhere in the region. To find the answer, staff conducted a mapping exercise which identified all street centerlines that are cut-off from the street centerline network by rail lines. Then for each cut-off island, staff calculated four measurements; (1) the number of rail lines that contributed to the cut-off, (2) the number of entry points into the cut-off, (3) the estimated number of households based upon the voter registration database, and (4) the estimate number of businesses.

This mapping exercise resulted in 67 areas that could potentially serve as a train cut-off island due to the complete blockage of one or more public or private rail grade crossings. Each location was further reviewed using an online mapping tool which provided an aerial examination. Proximity to industrial rail customers and intersections with competing railroads were noted as potential contributors for crossing blockages. Staff further refined the list by eliminating all cut-off islands that contained zero households and zero businesses. Households were defined as those having at least one registered voter. There were three such islands that did not impact any households or businesses at the current time. Another three islands that do not contain any households or businesses were included in the list as they provide access to public parks.

This high-level analysis resulted in identifying 64 potential train cut-off islands across the OKI region. To confirm the actual risks for complete train blockage at any location, communication with the railroads and further site-specific study should be conducted.

Every OKI county except Clermont has an area that potentially could be cut-off by a stopped train. Based on the aerial examination and findings, the 64 islands were categorized as having a high, medium, low, or no potential for blockage. The known problem area in St. Clair Township was deemed as the only island in the region at high risk of complete blockage. However, the four Butler County islands noted at medium risk for blockage are all located within 1.5 miles of the same NS and CSX rail intersection. The difference with these islands is that they contain a crossing with both NS and CSX, or their crossings are all with CSX. Therefore, the likelihood that all crossings would be blocked by stopped trains is less likely. However, these islands could be temporarily blocked by one stopped train and one moving train. Islands tagged as having a medium potential risk for complete blockage that are in other OKI counties share these same characteristics – in that they are located within a train length from a rail intersection with a competing railroad, rail yard or sidings with rail industrial customers.

Twenty-eight percent of the islands were noted as having a low risk for complete blockage. The common attribute shared by these islands is that they are located less than two miles from one or more industrial rail customers or over two miles from a rail intersection between two railroads.

Over half of the region’s cut-off islands are viewed as having no risk of total blockage at the present time. These islands are all associated with a single railroad operator and located great distances, four or more miles, from any industrial rail customer spurs, rail intersections with other railroads, or other rail infrastructure such as rail yards or sidings.

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