Untangling the traffic snarls of the “Bywater Train”

It must have been an emergency that made someone drive up over a Bywater sidewalk and take off speeding down a narrow residential street. That’s the charitable explanation, anyway. The more likely explanation is that the driver was impatient, frustrated, and angry. A train was blocking St. Claude Avenue and drivers were rerouting east on Rampart Street, then north on Montegut Street. One by one, they made the careful turn as I stood waiting to cross with my dog. It was taking too long for someone in a dark SUV, so they decided to cut the corner, passing the car ahead by driving up over the curb and onto the sidewalk before accelerating quickly toward St. Claude and a big, watery pothole the neighborhood used to call Montegut Springs. No one was hurt, but I made a mental note: When the train is crossing, not even the sidewalks are safe.

If you live near the train tracks that run along Homer Plessy Way—crossing St. Claude Avenue and Chartres, Royal, Dauphine, Burgundy, and Rampart streets—you know the litany of complaints about what we usually call the Bywater train. It makes us late for work and it keeps us up at night. It shakes pictures off walls and inspires reckless driving through the Bywater, the Marigny, St. Claude, and St. Roch. Neighbors have long complained and rallied for change, but they’re up against a tangle of private and governmental interests, and potential solutions regularly die unfunded.

“Everybody always complained about the train, and it wasn’t so much the noise,” John Guarnieri, president of the Bywater Neighborhood Association said. “It does bother people, but I think some people kind of liked it because it had this romantic feel with the sound of the train in the distance.”

Even for those who consider the noise to be a nuisance, it’s still small potatoes relative to the other items on the neighbors’ list of grievances. “One of the primary reasons we try to do something about it is because it’s a huge safety issue because you can’t get police or fire trucks or ambulances across the train tracks,” Guarnieri said.

The New Orleans Police Department would not comment on specific instances, but there is evidence that it happens. Members of the Facebook group Beat The Train—once an active community and now an archive of train complaints—have posted images of ambulances with lights on waiting for the train to clear St. Claude Avenue.

“There’s been derailments and blockages that sometimes are, like, 45 minutes long,” Guarnieri said. “And there’s been wrecks on Montegut of people trying to beat the train. Plus, when it’s blocked up that long, it totally jams up Claiborne. Those are constant problems.”

Winston Fiore, director of land use and constituent affairs liaison for District C, shared several emails sent to Councilmember Freddie King III’s office with the same complaints.

“It has become commonplace, if not the rule, that when a train is in the crossing, drivers take all available side streets to get to Claiborne Avenue, because they know they will be stuck on St. Claude for a while. This creates safety issues for the neighborhoods bordering this issue,” a Treme constituent who commutes across the tracks wrote.

In another email, a Bywater resident writes—in response to a 90-minute delay at the crossing on March 24—that these delays create traffic backups with no way out. “This also results in many understandably frustrated people taking very dangerous, unreasonable actions such as driving 40 miles an hour the wrong way down one-ways trying to find a path out of the traffic snarl,” he writes. “I nearly got hit by two such drivers this morning while walking my dog.” Councilmember King’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.

What we think of as “the Bywater train” is, of course, more than one train. It’s a complex shuffle of cars coming in and out of the city by rail and by ship.

Complaints sent to King were forwarded to Elizabeth Kennedy Lawlor, “resident vice president government relations” for Norfolk Southern, the rail company that runs the switchyard off St. Claude Avenue known as Oliver Yard. She replied with long, detailed explanations of Norfolk Southern operations in the area, as well as direct responses to their complaints. Based on her emails and a conversation with Norfolk Southern Media Relations Manager Connor Spielmaker, here are the basic facts about the train activity at St. Claude Avenue and Homer Plessy Way.

Oliver Yard operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with about 30 tracks coming together 300 to 1,000 feet north of St. Claude Avenue. Norfolk Southern interchanges with the New Orleans Public Belt (NOPB)—a “switching railroad” company that mainly moves freight for the Port of New Orleans and local industries—through the south end of Oliver Yard. That means the NOPB is delivering and receiving railcars to and from Northfolk Southern in that yard.

To do this, Norfolk Southern has to build and break down trains. That’s why you see the train moving back and forth across St. Claude Avenue, rather than passing straight through—the trains are adding and removing cars.

The NOPB brings in between 60 and 80 cars a day via the tracks along the river that pass the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), then brings out between 60 and 100 cars. And in addition to the NOPB, New Orleans is served by six of the seven Class I railroads. Those are the biggest in the country, accounting for around 94% of railroad revenue, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Norfolk Southern says they’re committed to clearing the street to allow traffic to pass after 15 to 20 minutes.

As for the 90-minute delay on March 24, Lawlor wrote, “That particular morning, the NOPB inbound train arrived several hours late. NS didn’t have track space for it at that time and the NOPB train stopped in a location that caused the blockage while NS was trying to move railcars to create track space for its late arrival.”

Asked in an email about what happened that morning, Jessica Ragusa, deputy director of governmental affairs for the NOPB said the issue was actually a backed-up yard: “Due to congestion in the NS yard, the delivery was delayed, which caused an extended blockage of traffic along the St. Claude corridor.”

While a 90-minute delay is easy to identify as an outlier, it’s hard for anyone in the affected neighborhoods to say exactly how bad the usual delays are. Anecdotally, you hear about 30- and 40-minute stoppages, but we all tend toward hyperbole when we’re mad. Ten minutes feels twice as long when we’re in a hurry.

Spielmaker suggested I observe the crossing at St. Claude Avenue for a day. But there’s a simpler, safer, and less sweltering way to figure out the truth: a live camera feed. For a few years, the Bywater Train Horn Detector@bywatertrain on Twitter—was automatically detecting and reporting train horns on the Press Street tracks. (Why? “I live near train, train honks a lot,” the site FAQ reads.)

And for just a few months, there was a camera that appeared to be mounted on the building on the northeast corner where St. Claude Avenue and the tracks intersect. When the train came into view, onto St. Claude Avenue, @bywatertrain would automatically fire off a tweet with a time-stamped image and “I see the train!” or “Train alert!” or “Train spotted!” When the train left, another tweet with another time-stamped image would follow: “Train is gone (train was there for 5 minutes) #train.”

On April 25, the Bywater train had a bad day. At 10:56 a.m., @bywatertrain tweeted an image of an engine partially obstructing St. Claude Avenue—just the westbound lanes. It was 11:40 a.m.—44 minutes later—when it tweeted the all-clear.

Forty-four minutes is a long time to block even half of a city street like St. Claude Avenue (and because we only have the first and final images, we don’t know if it ended up blocking the whole street). That’s 44 minutes of cars peeling off into the Bywater, the Marigny, St. Claude, and St. Roch. Forty-four minutes when it’s far more dangerous to be a pedestrian in those neighborhoods. Forty-four minutes during which an ambulance would struggle to reach someone who needs help.

I combed through five days of these camera tweets from @bywatertrain, from 2:58 p.m. Sunday, April 24, to its last camera tweet at 2:54 p.m. Friday, April 29. In that time, trains crossed St. Claude Avenue 139 times. They were blocking the street for a total of 984 minutes—that’s 16 hours and 24 minutes. On average, trains blocked the street for a little more than seven minutes at a time.

The daily norm was about three hours and six minutes of blockage in all. On the busiest day in that time period, April 27, trains were blocking St. Claude Avenue for three hours and 49 minutes.

A train blocked the street for more than 15 minutes at 11 different times in those five days. Six of those blockages lasted 20 minutes or longer, and three hit or surpassed the 40-minute mark.

In addition to the April 25 delay, St. Claude Avenue was blocked for 40 minutes at 4:14 a.m. April 27 and at 3:49 a.m. on April 28. That’s overnight, yes—but there isn’t an hour in the city of New Orleans in which people don’t need to get to work.

Efforts to implement any kind of solution seem stymied by a disagreement about what the real problem is. The problem, as Norfolk Southern sees it, is that they were here first. When the tracks were laid and the switching yard was built, the land east of it all was not the well-populated expanse of city we know today.

Guarnieri puts it this way: “Seventy-five years ago it wasn’t a big deal, because up until WWII, everything was fields and berries and stuff like that, and going down to Chalmette was like going to the freaking country.”

The solution here would be to build an overpass like the one that takes Claiborne Avenue over Oliver Yard. Because St. Claude Avenue is a state highway—Louisiana Highway 46—this would involve the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. LaDOTD did not respond to a request for comment on this and Fiore declined to comment on it. Norfolk Southern’s stance? “As far as the city building an overpass, by all means,” Spielmaker said. “Our goal is to have as little interference with the public as possible.” petitions tackling the issue from different angles, created by the Bywater Neighborhood Association Train Committee in 2016 and 2018, did not get results. The first, signed by 817 people, called for a quiet zone around the tracks. The second, signed by 247 people, supported “the application of the Port of New Orleans and the New Orleans Public Belt for Federal funding to create an additional railroad interchange at Florida Avenue.”

Neither possibility is dead, though. The NOPB applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) Program in 2018 but was not awarded funding, Ragusa said, adding, “We continue to look for funding opportunities to support this.”

The quiet zone would also require stakeholders to find funding, not to mention work together to actually implement it.

Daniel Jatres, policy and program manager for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation, said the City is exploring changes that would eliminate the requirement that trains blow their horn as they cross each street. That means installing gate arms and lights at each intersection from St. Claude Avenue to NOCCA. They’re working with Norfolk Southern and LaDOTD on this, and that means they’ll all have to agree on the design and installation of the crossing equipment. LaDOTD will need to issue a permit. To fund all this, the City will again apply for a CRISI grant. If that doesn’t work out, it can also “explore state or local funding options,” Jatres said.

For the most part, Norfolk Southern and the NOPB have treated this as a traffic problem—an inconvenience more than a safety concern. “Our mitigation of local traffic is doing everything we can to break that train every 15 minutes,” Spielmaker said. “We don’t do that in a lot of places. That’s a really big deal, that that happens.

“If that’s not happening,” he added, “I think that someone would want to hear about that.”

Spielmaker also said yard leaders periodically audit what happens there in an effort to make sure they stick to that commitment.“We never want to inconvenience any member of a community with a blocked crossing,” he wrote in an email. “Our dispatchers and train crews work hard to minimize these impacts and keep goods moving safely and efficiently.”

Asked if anyone at the NOPB has had conversations internally or with the City, state, Norfolk Southern, or community stakeholders about possible ways to ease the burden the trains create—and what, if anything, has been discussed—Ragusa replied: “The safety of local residents, pedestrians and our employees is our top priority. Our community engagement team has had the opportunity to meet with Bywater and Marigny neighborhood groups to hear input about railroad operations in the area. We also continuously work with NOCCA and other community members to ensure we are working schedules around rush hour and other important times.”

As Guarnieri pointed out, the number of stakeholders and decision-makers involved makes it very difficult to get anything done. For those of you not already counting, this involves the City, the state, the NOPB, Norfolk Southern and, because we’re talking trains, the federal government. Plus, multiple neighborhood groups and NOCCA need to weigh in. “It’s all a big BS PR thing, and you really get nowhere,” Guarnieri said. “They give you swag and PR. I’ve got a pair of Port of New Orleans striped socks.”

Until something changes, first responders will keep working around the blockages.“Our officers in the Fifth District have determined alternate routes to best circumvent such instances and still arrive to a scene as quickly as possible,” an NOPD spokesperson wrote in a statement for ANTIGRAVITY. “We are also in constant discussion with the respective agencies involving rail and bridge operation to ensure that such instances can be avoided as much as possible.”

The Beat The Train Facebook page might have stumbled on the most New Orleans solution: a parade. During Mardi Gras 2018, paraders stopped the train in its tracks. A picture from that day shows a mass of costumed New Orleanians filling Burgundy Street with the train looming behind them. You can practically hear the image—music pumping, train horn blaring, paraders cheering, accompanied by the smell of beer, sweat, exhaust fumes, and stagnant puddles.

In a group full of posts about waiting 30 minutes for the train, this one offers a moment of sweet victory: “Mardi Gras 2018: the day the train lost. Damn that train was trying to get across Burgundy for a good 30 minutes.”

“Is THAT what it takes?” someone replied. “Can we do it more often?”

It’s the beads-in-a-pothole fix—not a real solution, but the kind you become accustomed to when you live in New Orleans. It’s the solution that makes us feel better for just a moment, maybe even a whole day, until the next 2 a.m. horn blows.

photos by James Cullen