July 20, 2024

Advanced Ailment Care

Elevating Health Solutions

Long-idling trains create health, environmental concerns nationwide

9 min read

(InvestigateTV) — After years of renting, Caitlin Hillyard and Ben Weinberg were thrilled to finally be able to buy a townhouse in a neighborhood they’d already grown to love just outside Chicago. It felt like the American dream came true until they realized their neighbor was a nightmare.

“Sometimes it feels like sleeping inside a factory,” Weinberg said.

The couple lives about 300 feet from a set of tracks where trains often stop for hours. They were aware of the trains rolling through the neighborhood before they purchased their house. But once they moved in, they soon realized a recurring issue: locomotives that would frequently stand still with their engines running, just steps from their door.

A photograph taken from Caitlin Hillyard's bedroom shows just how close idling trains sit near...
A photograph taken from Caitlin Hillyard’s bedroom shows just how close idling trains sit near her home(Caitlin Hillyard)

They started tracking the frequency – recording the date, day of the week, time, duration, and other details every time a train stopped outside their home. Just last year, the couple’s data shows they charted more than 400 trains they say idled on the tracks bordering their community, averaging between 90 minutes and three hours per stop. One locomotive they recorded sat idling for more than 30 hours.

Weinberg and Hillyard have presented their data and raised a flag about the issue of idling to everyone from local government leaders to Congressional lawmakers and federal agencies to illustrate the impacts and call attention to the problem.

“We shouldn’t be the ones monitoring this railroad situation. Somebody who’s actually got some power like the government should be monitoring it,” Hillyard said.

Ben Weinberg and Caitlin Hillyard sit analyzing the database they've created documenting...
Ben Weinberg and Caitlin Hillyard sit analyzing the database they’ve created documenting idling trains that sit with their engines running outside their home(Joce Sterman, InvestigateTV)

Complaints highlight concerns ranging from noise to significant health impacts

The rail industry says trains often idle to keep their fluids warm to speed start-up times and to keep crews comfortable as they sit on the tracks. But the federal government doesn’t specifically track idling trains despite fears and frustration reported in cities across the nation.

InvestigateTV wanted to take an even deeper look into what has become standard practice for many rail companies and how it affects people from coast to coast.

Headlines from media outlets across the country detail concerns and frustrations about idling...
Headlines from media outlets across the country detail concerns and frustrations about idling trains(Joce Sterman | Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

We dug through blocked crossing data from the Federal Railroad Administration dating back to 2019. Although the agency’s reports are not specific to idling, the data did turn up dozens of complaints that mention the issue.

One complaint to the FRA details a train sitting with its engines on for three days in Nashville. Another mentions consistent problems in southern Georgia with the complainant saying “Now they park running locomotives idling and popping off compressors all hours of the night and day. Please have respect. How would you like that at your residence day after day, night after night?”

Although the Federal Railroad Administration doesn't specifically track reports about idling...
Although the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t specifically track reports about idling trains, its data does contain complaints like these that reference the problem(Joce Sterman | Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

Health concerns are also highlighted in the FRA’s complaints from states including Alabama, Illinois, and Texas. They’re echoed loudly in California, where InvestigateTV obtained complaints specifically about idling trains tracked by a state agency focused on curbing pollution and fighting climate change.

In that data from the California Air Resource Board, there are complaints about toxic smoke and diesel fumes from idling trains, with individuals noting breathing issues and nausea as locomotives park for days or weeks at a time idling and impacting communities nearby.

One individual reported to the board, “Train idling near home all night, concerned with diesel fumes, particulates, and noise. Medical issues like sore throat and needing inhaler.” Another said, “Toxic smoke pollution can be smelled and affects breathing from nearby trains. Wind carries smoke to neighborhood.”

Ben Weinberg and Caitlin Hillyard know just how they feel.

“The fumes really freak us out. We can sometimes smell diesel inside this room. We definitely can smell it outside,” Hillyard said. “They’re just spewing whatever they spew into the air that we breathe for hours every single day. I just worry about the long-term health implications of that.”

Studies conducted by the California Air Resource Board and the University of Southern California have found people living near rail lines and rail yards have lowered life spans, increased asthma, heart and lung disease rates, and a risk of cancer because of the exposure to particulate matter that comes from train emissions. Experts say millions of people in low-income communities of color are especially affected.

But despite the Environmental Protection Agency saying it is aware of the health impacts of train emissions from idling, critics say the agency hasn’t done enough to stop it.

“The last time EPA updated its emission standards was 15 years ago. We continue to suffer,” said Ivette Torres with the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice, who testified virtually in a senate hearing last July.

Torres’ comments came on behalf of the Moving Forward Network, a collection of 50 groups nationwide calling on Congress and the EPA to act and update regulations that govern the rail industry’s emissions.

“We know that technology is here and it’s feasible, economically feasible to go completely zero emissions. We need standards that are higher and better than the 2008 standards,” Torres testified.

In an emailed statement following the hearing, Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., told InvestigateTV, “Every day, rail workers and people living in communities near rail yards and train lines have to breathe in diesel fumes, putting their health, safety, and lives on the line. It’s way past time to revisit and revitalize our country’s emission standards for locomotives, which haven’t been updated for more than a decade. While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was an important start, Congress must pick up steam when it comes to making transformative investments in electrifying rail.”

‘We’ve made strong commitments’ to modernize says rail industry

The current EPA standards from 2008 sound good on paper. They say any locomotive or engine made after 2015 must be equipped with idling control systems that shut off engines after 30 minutes. But experts who testified before the Senate say very few of them have been made, so much of what remains on the rails is old, with outdated technology.

The Association of American Railroads, the lobbying group representing the nation’s largest rail companies, declined InvestigateTV’s request for an on-camera interview. But in testimony before the Senate, the group’s leader, Ian Jefferies, said rail companies have invested more than a billion dollars to modernize, but with supply constraints, the need for power grid improvements and other issues – it can’t happen overnight.

“We all want to do a job in a way that reduces emissions and continually reduces our environmental impact. But it’s got to be done in a way that can allow us to continue to operate, serve our customers, serve our communities and that the production market can actually handle,” Jefferies told lawmakers.

The Association of American Railroads has blogged repeatedly about its efforts to reduce...
The Association of American Railroads has blogged repeatedly about its efforts to reduce locomotive emissions(Joce Sterman | Association of American Railroads)

Gray area in federal law allows rail companies to avoid updating older trains

InvestigateTV discovered the rail industry has been able to use a loophole in the EPA rules that deals with updating older trains, the ones the government labels “non new.”

“There’s these automatic shut off devices. And those, if you buy a new locomotive, you don’t have a choice, you have to use those,” said David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But for anything earlier, which is the overwhelming majority of locomotives, you don’t have to use those (shut off devices) unless you remanufacturer the engine, which would be 50 years. And then there’s no enforcement by the feds of idling in those older trains.”

David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been among those...
David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been among those leading the legal charge to further regulate rail emissions(Owen Hornstein, InvestigateTV)

In addition to limited regulation at the national level, states have also been rendered largely powerless to regulate trains because of longstanding federal law. But Pettit said a recent change made by the EPA could create a seismic shift.

The agency’s decision essentially provides California, where Petitt practices, the opportunity to adopt and create emissions standards for those non-new trains, if it gets the EPA’s blessing. The move, considered positive by advocates seeking additional regulation, will still create a legal battle he said could go on for years, with people who live near the rail yards continuing to pay the price of inaction.

“Folks who live across the fence from the rail yard – they pay the cost for it. Those neighbors are paying with their health and their lives in order to support railroad profits,” Pettit said.

The Association of American Railroads told InvestigateTV in a statement, “Idling trains for extended periods of time is in neither communities nor the rail industry’s interest. Railroads have made significant efforts to reduce idling and train employees to power down locomotives when possible if they are not in active service.”

The organization also said railroads, as an industry, have made significant efforts to reduce idling, implemented extensive measures to reduce rail yard emissions and worked to improve air quality for nearby communities.

The EPA declined an interview with InvestigateTV. In a statement, the agency said it’s been engaging with stakeholders since 2022, evaluating how to best deal with rail emissions. A spokesperson said, “EPA is developing a set of options and recommendations for regulatory action addressing new locomotives and new locomotive engines.”

Petitt, who is among those leading the legal fight to regulate rail emissions in California, said, “What I would tell railyard neighbors is to beat on EPA as often and as hard as they can. Because EPA, in my opinion, can do something about this if it wants to and they need to hear from people about how bad the problem is, and they need to get it fixed.”

Caitlin Hillyard and Ben Weinberg are banging the drum everywhere they can, not just to find solutions to the problem in their own backyard, but to assist people in other communities who might not have the time or resources to do it themselves.

“This isn’t something that we’re trying to fight just because we’re annoyed or we’re princesses who can’t sleep. You should not be treating human beings like this, especially these companies that have so much money,” Hillyard said. “They can make choices about how they do their business. And so doing it on the backs of anyone, whether it’s us or whether it’s somebody down the tracks to the west or to the east, it’s just not right.”

A small white sign on the tracks in Forest Park, Illinois that is difficult for members of the...
A small white sign on the tracks in Forest Park, Illinois that is difficult for members of the public to view is the only indication idling trains may sit in the area(Scotty Smith, InvestigateTV)

Union Pacific, the company whose trains frequently idle outside Hillyard and Weinberg’s home, told InvestigateTV in an email that it has been using the tracks in their neighborhood as a location for crew changes and transfer for years with few complaints or issues.

“This site, which is situated directly between commercial and industrial properties, allows us to switch crews safely without blocking railroad crossings or impacting traffic flows in other parts of the city,” a spokesperson wrote.

But Hillyard supplied emails from other homeowners as well as press clippings documenting concerns about the idling in their area dating back to 2015, with one group of residents advocating to stop the practice long before the pair purchased their home.

Union Pacific said it has spoken with Hillyard and Weinberg and is taking steps to address their concerns, including the planting of evergreens to serve as a natural buffer. It’s a solution Weinberg says hardly gets to the root of the problem they’ll keep battling to fix.

“As long as we’re in this house, we’re going to fight because we’re here anyway,” Weinberg said. “And if there became an opportunity to relocate where we wouldn’t have to sacrifice all the other aspects of quality of life, we would seriously consider jumping on that. But for right now there isn’t. So as long as we’re here, we’re going to fight as much as we can.”

Associate Producer Charlie Roth contributed research to this report.


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