Good news for motorists

Published 9:38 pm Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An increase of the speed limit for passenger and freight trains rolling through downtown Suffolk isn’t a cure-all for the traffic bottlenecks that motorists regularly experience, but it sure can’t hurt.

Even better is that rail crossings will become safer, experts say, with the faster-moving trains.

Norfolk-Southern Railroad reported last week that speed limits will increase from 40 mph to 60 mph for Amtrak trains and from 40 mph to 50 mph for freight trains effective Sept. 2. The crossings affected — at Capital, Liberty, Washington, Commerce, South Main, South Saratoga and Wellons streets — average 25 to 30 trains per day.

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On a busy weekday, cars can be lined up for blocks in downtown Suffolk waiting on the tracks to clear. Five minutes can seem like 15 for a worker rushing back to the office after lunch or a business person trying to make it to an important meeting.

The trains, we’re convinced, deter people who live and work elsewhere in the city from coming downtown for lunch or shopping. Likewise, people who work downtown are hesitant to venture out to the North Main commercial corridor, lest they get caught by a long train.

A Norfolk-Southern spokesman said that warning devices at the crossings have been adjusted to activate when the faster-moving trains are approaching. Safer crossings as a result of faster-moving trains is counterintuitive. But it makes sense, upon further consideration, that the slower a train is moving, the more tempted is a motorist to try to beat it.

“Statistics show there are actually more car-train collisions when trains are going at slower speeds,” said Robin Chapman of Norfolk-Southern.

For any motorist or pedestrian thinking about tempting their fate with a train, Operation Lifesaver, a public education program dedicated to ending collisions, deaths and injuries involving railroads, offers these sobering reminders: It takes the average freight train traveling at 55 mph more than a mile — the length of 18 football fields — to stop. And the average locomotive weighs about 400,000 pounds, reducing your vehicle to little more than a soda can.